The BDS Campaign’s Unpopular Front

The Israeli boycott movement is a disaster comparable to the American CP of the 1930s.

Tagged International RelationsIsrael

Late in the summer of 2016, some friends and colleagues emailed me to say they were planning to draw up a petition of (mostly) Jewish writers and scholars, and all liberal supporters of Israel’s right to exist, calling for a boycott of products made in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. I strongly supported the idea behind it—I would support almost anything intended to help convince Israel to end the destructive folly of the now 50-year occupation—but I declined nevertheless. Part of my reasoning grew out of an aversion to merely symbolic politics. No such boycott existed or was likely to come into existence as a result of the letter.

But my other concern was personal. I had just returned from an extremely rewarding study trip to Israel sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. I knew enough to know that not only was Israel preparing to bar entry to anyone who supported any form of boycott against the nation, but also that this ban would likely fail to distinguish between those who called for a boycott of all of Israel and those who just supported boycotting the occupied territories. It didn’t help that the Netanyahu government was working furiously to erase that line. Most Israelis, like most members of official American Jewish organizations, won’t even use the word “occupation” anymore, following the Likud line on currently acceptable nomenclature. The more felicitous term “disputed” is employed instead. The others simply call them “Israel.” However much I objected to these developments, I still wanted to be able continue to visit Israel in the future.

My concerns turned out to be well-founded. Not only did Israel pass a law even more draconian than I had imagined, the U.S. Congress now appears poised to criminalize support for similar actions, trampling on our First Amendment rights in the process. Neither the Israeli law nor the American legislation makes any distinction between Israel’s internationally recognized borders and those places where its presence is widely considered to be illegal. Indeed, the refusal to make this distinction is explicitly stated by the authors of both laws. Ironically, the petition I declined to sign originated among a group of academics who were specifically dedicated to fighting the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanction” (BDS) movement on college campuses, while at the same time maintaining a critical stance toward the policies of the Israeli government, especially those related to the occupation. The signatories included some of Israel’s most eloquent champions in U.S. public discourse, such as the philosopher Michael Walzer and the journalism professor Peter Beinart. My friend Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and petition organizer, told me, after the law had been passed, that he had been invited to give a lecture at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. However, because of the petition, he told his would-be hosts that he could agree to appear only if they promised to meet him at Ben-Gurion Airport with legal representation, lest he be detained or sent home because his name appeared on the wrong list.

This foolish and self-defeating law makes it much more difficult—impossible really—to defend Israel to its enemies as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” But it is only the tip of an extremely troublesome virus of anti-democratic illiberalism that has been unleashed among Israelis of late, and has also infected its most vociferous supporters in the United States. As with the BDS law before the Senate, many of these actions can be traced to a reaction to the growing popularity of the BDS campaign in the United States and Europe.

The BDS movement has had some success in Europe and elsewhere, but in the United States its prominence can be found almost exclusively in the panic of its opponents. Yes, one can find a church group or food co-op here and a musician or actor there who have chosen to honor the boycott. But the primary locus of the movement’s efforts in the United States has been on our college campuses, where students and faculty demonstrate in support of it, often inspiring votes that turn out in its favor, but are then roundly ignored by the school’s administration, save for a possible condemnation.

Unfortunately, the real danger posed by BDS is therefore not that it might succeed, but that its opponents will continue to respond with illiberal overreaction, thereby demonstrating that many of the nasty attacks that BDS proponents level might have more than a grain of truth to them. In this respect, as in quite a few others, the pitched battle over BDS resembles that over the Communist Party during its American heyday. It’s not that the movement has any hope of genuine success; but given the fear and loathing it inspires in its opponents, it may just succeed in scoring propaganda victory after propaganda victory, undermining key democratic freedoms in the bargain.

The academic version of the BDS campaign was founded in 2005 by Omar Barghouti, who, ironically, graduated with a Master’s from boycott-target, Tel Aviv University. It called on all universities and related institutions to refuse to participate in any activities—whether conferences, classes, or journals—that enjoy any institutional affiliation with Israel or anyone deemed to be a representative of Israel until such time as the goals of the movement are met. These goals include an end to the occupation by Israel of all Arab lands (and not just those occupied after 1967) and the right of return for the descendants of all Palestinian refugees, including those who fled or were expelled in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, or Nakba (“catastrophe”) as the Palestinians term it. Yet both of these conditions would also mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Judged by these goals, BDS is an utter failure. It is also a total zero when judged by the more modest goal of seeking to convince significant institutions in the United States to participate in the boycott. None has, and I feel confident in predicting that none will. While any number of student organizations have called upon their universities to divest themselves of all relations with Israeli universities, not a single one has done so. Nor is it likely any ever will.

This lack of success on the part of BDS on campus should actually cheer liberal hearts for at least three reasons. The first and most obvious is that BDS conflicts with the liberal ideals of academic freedom. The notion that the members of a certain country ought to be barred from participating in academic discourse because one disapproves of their government is ipso facto illiberal. It is also hypocritical when you consider the fact that nobody is advocating the boycott of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, Turkey, China or, dare I suggest it, the United States under Donald Trump. BDS advocates seek to elide this problem in two ways: one, by paying tribute to Israel’s democratic claims—its citizens presumably can be convinced to mend their ways, while Syria’s, China’s etc. lack that option; two, they insist that that they are not calling for a boycott of individual Israelis, merely the institutions they represent. But this is nonsense. As Stanford University’s Russell Berman notes, “Individual scholars can thrive only because of their institutional contexts and the resources that institutions make available. Strip away the institution and the individual scholar barely survives.”

Israelis will gladly forgo Roger Waters and Elvis Costello (who have both refused to play concerts there) if they get to keep their country.

The second reason why BDS’s lack of success should cheer liberals is that the academic campaign is self-defeating, if one assumes the goal of BDS is to hasten the end of the lands Israel has occupied since 1967 and give the Palestinians the opportunity to exercise their national rights in peace and security alongside their neighbor. Israeli academics, it should surprise no one familiar with academics of any nation, are among the most dedicated voices for the dwindling hopes of a two-state solution in all of Israel. Together with other cultural workers—journalists, actors, musicians, novelists, along with the human rights and civil society organizations that continue their tireless and often thankless efforts to protect and defend a genuinely inclusive and  democratic vision of Zionism—they provide the backbone of what resistance remains to the Netanyahu government’s plan for unending occupation. These factors help explain why such high-profile supporters of the Palestinian cause such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have expressed their opposition to the cultural boycott of Israel. Tireless Palestinian activist and former president of Al Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, put the case this way: “If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals…If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.” The leaders of the boycott, moreover, have never credibly explained exactly how their plan is supposed to work. The BDS movement on campus may model itself on the success of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa of the 1980s and 1990s, but this is a terrible analogy with regard to Israel. I say this not because what Israel practices is or is not “apartheid.” Rather it’s because, given the history of European anti-Semitism, and especially Nazism, a boycott implemented against almost exclusively Jews inspires all kinds of painful memories and leads almost all Israelis to consider it to be ipso facto evidence of this same historical phenomenon, merely dressed up in new political garb. White South Africans, it hardly need be said, faced no such history. As a result, no Israeli who wants to remain a credible political voice there will support BDS, and neither do any Americans who genuinely believe—as do I—that a two-state solution is the only one that can save Israel from going further down the unhappy road to a Bantustan-like solution to the problem of the Palestinians.

The third reason liberals should cheer the movement’s lack of success so far is that its leaders are playing a kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch game with its followers. While the brutality and inhumanity of the occupation fuels its (justifiable) anger, the true goal of BDS appears to be an end not to the occupation, but to Israel itself. Barghouti insists that equal rights for Palestinians must include “at minimum, ending Israel’s 1967 occupation and colonization, ending Israel’s system of racial discrimination, and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba.” He has repeatedly denounced the notion of Israel and a Palestinian nation living side by side as not “pragmatically possible” and “never a moral solution.” In other words, he expects Israelis to vote their country out of existence. Nothing in BDS’s official literature contradicts this view, or calls for an independent Jewish state; rather, the group specifically reiterates the call for the right of return of millions of Palestinians who left what is now Israel proper—either because they chose to or were expelled in 1948 and 1967—and hence, that nation’s demographic destruction. Some BDS supporters openly call for the expulsion of the “settler colonialists” who arrived after 1948, presumably to their countries of origin, or those of their parents and grandparents.

Regardless of whatever moral legitimacy this demand may have—and it has virtually none among everyday Jewish Israelis and most American Jews—it is clearly never going to happen. And no matter how many student governments or rock stars support it, this will not change that. Israelis will gladly forgo Roger Waters and Elvis Costello (who have both refused to play concerts in Israel) so long as they get to keep their country. And after all the late Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Radiohead, and the Rolling Stones have ignored the call to boycott and played to extremely large crowds since the boycott began.

I do doubt very much, however, that the majority of BDS supporters, especially those on U.S. college campuses, are aware that neither its leaders nor its literature supports Israel’s right to exist. My own impression as a speaker on various college campuses on the issue is that many, if not most, are just garden-variety student idealists who would have protested the Vietnam War, Central American interventions, nuclear missiles, South African apartheid, or whatever the passion of the moment happened to be. Many are Jews who don’t like the occupation and don’t believe that the American Jewish establishment—including, particularly, the recently politicized college Jewish organization, Hillel—is willing to face up to the brutality of the occupation and the injury it inflicts on their own identities as Jews, as liberals, and as supporters of the underdog in all matters.

In this respect, as well as others, the BDS movement resembles the U.S. Communist Party of the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s: Its leaders fight one fight while its foot soldiers are fighting another. Countless Communists of that time believed they were battling for racial equality, peaceful relations between nations, and an end to the threat of nuclear annihilation, while its leaders were merely seeking to discredit the United States in Europe and the Third World, as they built up the reputation of Stalin and his murderous minions.

Yet BDS also resembles the old Communists in its eagerness to use underhanded tactics to win votes it could not win out in the open. It is a remarkable coincidence that so many pro-BDS votes happen to take place on Shabbat or other Jewish holidays so that their most dedicated opponents are unable to attend. This happened at the recent vote taken in favor of endorsing BDS at the Democratic Socialists of America convention. It happened also at the initial CUNY doctoral student vote I attended at the invitation of anti-BDS students; I convinced them to postpone for this reason. At Tufts University, the BDS vote occurred just before Passover, as many Jewish students were absent to attend seders at home. In 2017, at the Pitzer College student senate, where BDS advocates scheduled the vote for the Sunday during Passover. The goal is, as was the case with the Communist Party and its various front groups, to make BDS the default position of progressive organizations on campus and off, regardless of the movement’s level of genuine support among its members. In formal terms, these votes turn out to be meaningless—annoying, no doubt, to many Jewish parents whose children, by their lights, are learning exactly the wrong things in college about Israel, Judaism, etc. But the votes and agitation that accompany them—oftentimes as funders and others threaten the schools with retaliation if these activities are allowed to continue—serve the goal of encouraging students to define their political identities in support of the movement. My daughter is a smart kid who attended Jewish camp for her entire adolescence and happened to be in Israel with her camp group to witness an Iron Dome explosion in the sky on her way to a bomb shelter during the 2014 Gaza War. But during “Israel Apartheid Week,” in her freshman year at college, she texted me: “Dad, if Israel is an apartheid state and is committing crimes against humanity, why do we oppose BDS?” It began a long and eventually fruitful conversation, but it involved making subtle distinctions and arguments that many liberal Zionists like yours truly find more and more uncomfortable, as the Netanyahu government behaves in an ever more anti-democratic, illiberal fashion; one in which all avenues to a peaceful two-state solution are being self-consciously closed off.

A new proposed ethics code by a far-right Tel Aviv University professor seeks to gag what professors can say in their own classrooms.

Meanwhile, some BDS opponents in Israel and the United States appear eager to try to outrace one another in their efforts to curtail democracy and freedom of expression rather than to engage an argument that they fear will demand answers to questions they would prefer to ignore. In Israel, the new law that made me worried about my ability to continue to visit has resulted in the refusal to allow even certain rabbis to enter the country. Such actions inspired a letter signed by 200 American rabbis in protest, but it did not lead to a change in Israeli policy. Americans for Peace Now—a long-established group of deeply engaged pro-Israel Americans—was forced to cancel its regular trip to Israel lest its members also be sent home at the airport. An Israeli citizen was recently picked up by police in the West Bank because a neighbor reported that he or she suspected him of carrying pro-BDS material. He was detained for “incitement.” Israel has also recently created a “‘BDS-busting’ ministry” which, according to Haaretz’s Uri Blau, plans to set up a database of Israeli citizens who support the movement. As the philosopher (and BDS supporter) Cornel West has observed, “With this particular act, Einstein could not go to Israel. … Does this mean that Israel actually is ready to turn its back on some of its prophetic figures, who themselves were Jewish?” He did not mention that in an earlier, more self-confident Israel, Albert Einstein, who supported a binational state for Arabs and Israelis back in 1948, was actually offered the country’s (powerless) presidency.

The fear that BDS strikes in the heart of Israeli politicians has taken the Israeli government even further than barring BDS supporters from entering the country. A new proposed ethics code for Israeli professors is seeking to gag what they’re allowed to say in their classrooms. The code, which was drafted by Asa Kasher, a Tel Aviv University professor of philosophy and ethics at the request of the leader of the far-right Habayit Hayehudi (“Jewish Home”) party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, seeks to ban “political activity” in the classroom. It defines such activity as espousing “a particular point of view in a recognized public dispute.” According to the Alliance for Academic Freedom, an organization comprised mainly of Jewish faculty (to which I belong), this new code amounts to “an effort to impose fundamental and wholly unacceptable government constraints on faculty political speech and, more broadly, to radically circumscribe the authority of Israeli academic institutions to do their work.” The code would require each institution “to establish a unit that would monitor political activity” on campus, the document says. “If a lecturer does talk [about politics], and one of the students complains about it, that lecturer could receive a disciplinary citation from the institution,” the statement said. Should the lecturer ignore the warning, she may face harsher disciplinary action. Almost as an afterthought, the code also bars academic staff from taking part in or calling for an academic boycott of Israel, and forbids collaboration with organizations deemed to be in favor of it. Faced with large student protests and widespread condemnation upon the code’s release, Bennett called on “everyone to calm down” and insisted that the code was “not meant to be the ‘Ten Commandments,’” rather it was merely meant as a means to reach “the widest possible consensus.”

To be fair, it is not appropriate to give BDS all the credit for these anti-democratic and illiberal measures. The Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu has undertaken a campaign against virtually all of its perceived critics, going so far as barring representatives of some human rights organizations, undermining the funding of others who oppose the occupation, and inflicting daily humiliations and degradations on Palestinian society. Last year, the Knesset passed the so-called NGO law which, as the pro-peace website 972+ Magazine correctly notes, is specifically designed “to stigmatize left-wing and human rights organizations in Israel as agents of foreign powers.” Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, has warned that “institutions that delegitimize the State of Israel will not receive funding,” and she recently sent out a questionnaire to find out which theater groups or musical artists were refusing to perform on the West Bank. Netanyahu recently refused to meet with the German foreign minister when he paid a visit to Israel because the minister also met with members of the prominent human rights group “Breaking the Silence,” made up of Israeli Defense Force veterans who expose human rights violations committed by the IDF. The prime minister even gave a backhanded assist to an anti-Semitic campaign launched by the Hungarian government against the Jewish philanthropist and critic of Israel’s government, George Soros. All of these measures give further aid and comfort to those who see Israel as an oppressor state whose continued existence cannot be justified on moral grounds, but only on the basis of military might.

Numerous pro-Israel groups in the United States, Jewish and otherwise, have demonstrated a similar panic in the face of BDS, a panic that has the effect of strengthening the movement’s anti-Israel arguments in the process. Millions of dollars have been raised from funders—including the Israeli government and various conservative Christian groups—to counter BDS on campus. Unfortunately, the funders are so dominated by the far right that they are not only ineffective in reaching those students who are trying to marry their progressive politics to a consistent position on Israel, but they also help further associate Israel with right-wing repression and thus bear out BDS accusations.

Aside from the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group J-Street, it’s hard to find a single mainstream Jewish organization that has shown a willingness to engage BDS supporters in a civil discussion lest they be accused of offering legitimacy to groups they find anathema. (In 2014, J-Street was denied entry into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group of the Jewish establishment, largely, one suspects, for this reason.) In 2010, Hillel International, the parent organization of campus Hillel, announced the policy it calls the “Standards of Partnership,” prohibiting the hosting or co-partnering on any projects with individuals or organizations that support BDS. I personally advised a Hillel representative, who sought my opinion, that such a policy communicates only fear and a lack of confidence in college students honestly seeking answers to complex and often painful questions. To make matters worse, certain right-wing Jewish groups have begun compiling Cold War-style blacklists of certain professors and even students who are believed to support BDS, with the idea that they be silenced from speaking about politics in the classroom or denied jobs and scholarships on the basis of these views. And sadly, like many BDS supporters, BDS opponents frequently engage in vituperative and abusive social-media campaigns, with liberal Zionist critics of Israel who nevertheless oppose BDS receiving these attacks from both sides simultaneously (as I can personally attest).

Naturally, numerous demagogic politicians have found the issue irresistible, especially those who rely either on large numbers of “pro-Israel” voters or on wealthy funders. In New York, for instance, state legislators sought to radically cut back funding for the City University of New York (CUNY), where I am proud to teach, over alleged pro-BDS agitation at Brooklyn College and elsewhere. These attacks were inspired by a lengthy document compiled by the Zionist Organization of America, a far-right Jewish organization, and filled with falsehoods, exaggerations, and McCarthyite accusations. The tactic actually appeared ready to succeed in forcing a massive funding cut for CUNY until a last-minute budget agreement with Governor Andrew Cuomo found a way to strike it. This was only one of many assaults on CUNY related to the issue; one in which the university has uniformly taken a free-speech position while trying not to appear to be encouraging those students and faculty who continue to re-raise the question over and over. The University of California faced similar threats—orchestrated by an organization called the AMCHA Initiative, but likewise it has managed to prevail over efforts to use state funding as a means of stifling debate on the issue. In both of these cases, the schools in question did their duty: defend free expression against all efforts to undermine it through economic blackmail. But the mere fact of these efforts once again gave BDS proponents an unearned propaganda victory as well as the status of a victim of well-funded oppression.

Most U.S. synagogues and temples evince a similar fear of engagement. Two blocks from my apartment on Manhattan’s extremely liberal Upper West Side, a storied conservative synagogue, Ansche Chesed, chose to cancel a contract it had signed to host a Jewish panel discussion about Israel for fear that it might touch on BDS. Keep in mind that the synagogue was merely renting itself out for the discussion, and at least half of those scheduled to speak were vocal opponents of the movement. Its rabbi explained at the time: “The conversation about whether there should be an economic assault on the state of Israel, which would turn Israel into a pariah state on the scale of South Africa—that’s not a conversation that we want to explore the merits of here. It’s beyond the pale.” It’s as if these sophisticated, extremely well-read, and educated Jews believe that merely allowing anyone to be exposed to a pro-BDS speech will likely infect that listener for life. Needless to say, this is hardly an effective means of convincing people that its arguments are without merit.

BDS opponents here in the United States are also using the legislative process to try to prohibit support for the movement. Wisconsin recently became the 24th state, according to The Jerusalem Post, to “promulgate either a law or an executive order forbidding the state from conducting business with firms engaged in BDS activity targeting Israel.” Recently, in Kansas, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found itself forced to take up the cause of a teacher who was refused a state contract because she did not wish to sign a pledge to oppose BDS. (She insisted her Christian beliefs forbade it.) In Dickinson, Texas, locals seeking hurricane relief were told to sign a similar form (though the anti-BDS legislator who authored the bill claimed that this was somehow the result of a misunderstanding, as did the Israeli consul general in Houston who has expressed his support for the state’s anti-BDS law, which has since been withdrawn).
As with the alleged spectre of “Sharia law,” this effort is underway despite the fact that the threat of a widespread boycott of Israel by any major governmental or commercial entity is almost entirely imaginary.

But this hasn’t stopped a similarly hysterical reaction within Congress. Two years ago, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015. Obama embraced its provisions protecting Israel from the BDS movement, while refusing to endorse those protections for the occupied territories. Today, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, outlaws all support for, or even the furnishing of information about, a boycott directed at Israel or its businesses by any “international governmental organization,” including the United Nations and the European Union, as punishable by civil and criminal penalties of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.

To no one’s surprise, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has exerted considerable pressure on behalf of the bill, as have other groups claiming the “pro-Israel” mantle. The legislation has 234 co-sponsors in the House and is being energetically lobbied in the Senate. It is extremely popular among Republican senators. On the Democratic side, there is nervousness and hesitancy. So far, only 13 of the bill’s 67 co-sponsors are Democrats. When New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand decided to withdraw her support for the bill, she was met with a barrage of attacks from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post (“Kirsten Gillibrand’s profile in cowardice”) Meanwhile, the ACLU came out against the bill on the grounds that it compromises freedom of speech, as political boycotts are clearly speech acts. Naturally, as a result, individuals associated with the ACLU have found themselves under personal attack from hawkish Jewish journalists like Tablet magazine’s Liel Leibovitz, employing the age-old tactic of terming one’s opponent on an Israel-related issue to be an anti-Semite. In this case, the target was the organization’s national political director, Faiz Shakir, a Muslim analyst, formerly associated with the liberal Center for American Progress.

The proposed legislation does not only curtail free speech. As with the Israeli laws it mimics, it purposely refuses to distinguish between Israel and the occupied territories. The proposed U.S. law is opposed by many Israeli security officials, such as Ami Ayalon, the former director of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet, and Gilead Sher, former chief of staff for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who co-authored an op-ed with Orni Petruschka, an Israeli high-tech entrepreneur. As the journalist J.J. Goldberg explains, by blurring the distinction between Israel and “territories under its control,” the legislation “commits the United States for the first time to extending protection, including active legal protection, to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

Here, again, the Communist comparison is as instructive as it is troubling. The U.S. Communist Party never had even the slimmest chance of taking over a single government agency or even local government in the United States. But it did a bang-up job of inciting sufficient paranoia and hysteria in its opponents, both in government and academia, as part of a conscious effort to discredit America’s image of itself as a free and open society. What’s more, by empowering the hawks on both sides, U.S. Communists pushed the Cold War into ever more dangerous territory and may have extended its natural life.

One might argue that BDS proponents are not responsible for the backlash their movement inspires in its opponents. Or one might contend that some form of backlash is inevitable in all movements for social change, whether in say, South Africa or the American South. But those reactions were those of an implacable minority whose time had clearly passed; it would have been impossible for any liberation movement to avoid them. As I’ve argued above, BDS is succeeding only in inciting this form of reaction, and it is doing so within the exact audience whose support it would need in order to be successful. This, once again, is the “success” of the Communist Party—success in forcing its target to jettison its ideals and best practices and turn, instead, to repression as a means of quieting its critics.

Illiberal attempts to silence BDS only strengthen the arguments of those who portray Israel as illegitimate, anti-democratic, and oppressive to all but its Jewish citizens. What’s more, its casualties will be not only Israel’s democratic bona fides, but also the hope of peace between the two peoples, and hence, the prospect of an independent Palestinian homeland living alongside Israel in peace and dignity. This is the only “success” that the BDS movement has any chance of achieving. It is therefore the job of the faithful friends of both peoples to ensure that it fails.

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