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Why the BDS Campaign Is Worse than Ineffective

July 24, 2012

But the Issue of Palestinian National Rights Will Not Go Away

by Philip Mendes
The international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel was a by-product of the second Palestinian Intifada and the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process. In April and May, 2002, groups of academics in Europe and Australia urged a boycott of all Israeli academics and academic institutions. The timing of these initiatives was instructive: They commenced immediately following the height of the Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in March, 2002, which killed sixty-three Israelis and injured many hundreds. These attacks provoked Israel’s invasion of the leading West Bank cities in an attempt to destroy the terror networks and stop the carnage. Yet the initiators of the academic boycott campaign chose to condemn the invasion rather than the terrorism.
In April, 2004, sixty Palestinian academic and non-government organizations publicly called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. The BDS campaign was then formalized on July 9th, 2005 as the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott. The campaign announced three key aims: 1) to end the Israeli occupation of lands occupied in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, and dismantle the security barrier; 2) to achieve full equality for the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; 3) to support the rights of Palestinian refugees, including their demand for a right of return to Israel as implied by the 1948 UN Resolution 194, which followed Israel’s success in the 1948 war.
The campaign has not endorsed a two-state solution that respects the national and human rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The official statements that emanate from the Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel emphasize that the first and foremost priority is to reverse the events of 1948 that led to the Palestinian refugee tragedy, and secondly, to demand the return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants to their former homes inside Green Line Israel.
The leading Palestinian BDS advocate, Omar Barghouti, in his 2011 book BDS: the Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, is completely honest about his real intentions. He explicitly vilifies Palestinian moderates and Israeli leftists (such as Uri Avnery) who support two states, and he even opposes a binational state based on parity between the two national groups. Rather, Barghouti bizarrely returns to the long-obsolete PLO proposal for a secular democratic state that recognizes Jews only as a religious, not national, community.
To me, this amounts to calling for the elimination of the existing State of Israel. Even as harsh a critic of Israel as Noam Chomsky has excoriated the BDS movement for its lack of support for Israel’s right to exist and for misleading the Palestinian people.
In Great Britain, the BDS movement has been openly McCarthyist. The Association of University Teachers, for example — now amalgamated into the University and College Union, UCU — has proposed the exemption from the boycott of “good” Israeli academics who are willing to condemn the policies of Israel and conform to a test of political orthodoxy.
Britain’s UCU has also been implicitly if not explicitly anti-Semitic — as acknowledged in September, 2007, when it withdrew its boycott campaign based on legal advice that it was an infringement of anti-discrimination legislation. The UCU has also distributed racist material that includes conspiracy theories concerning alleged Jewish control of New Labour and international finance. This has provoked accusations of institutionalized anti-Semitism within the UCU, legal threats to sue the UCU on grounds of discrimination, and the mass resignations of Jewish members. One of the few remaining Jewish UCU members, Ronnie Fraser, told the May 2011 Union Congress that they, “as a group of mainly white, non-Jewish trade unionists, do not have the right to tell me, a Jew, what feels like anti-Semitism and what does not.”
The UCU also invited South African trade unionist Bongani Masuku, who had earlier threatened South African Jews who supported Israel with violence or expulsion, to address a union forum in favour of BDS. Masuku’s comments had been formally condemned as hate speech by the South African Human Rights Commission. It is unimaginable that the UCU would have similarly invited a white South African who had incited hatred against Black and Muslim South Africans.
Nevertheless, the UCU has rejected and denounced the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia’s widely used definition of anti-Semitism on the grounds that criticism of Israel cannot possibly be anti-Semitic. This is patently absurd.
These incidents confirm that BDS campaigns can and almost certainly will lead to the promotion of political anti-Semitism because they fundamentally target not only the occupation policies of Israel but its very right to exist. An arguable exception to this rule is the relatively new, targeted boycott of products and companies doing business with Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories — a campaign that originated in Israel itself, with the refusal of leading Jewish cultural figures to perform or present in the settlements. This campaign has been endorsed by several rabbis as well as a few American Zionist leaders such as Peter Beinart, and has backing among some liberal Christian church groups. Intentionally or not, however, it gives legitimation to the BDS movement as a whole. To me, a Zionist BDS is a contradiction in terms, for the BDS movement is anti-Zionist — just as the West Bank settlement project is anti-Palestinian.
On the surface, BDS appears to have achieved some success in isolating Israel by attracting support from legal experts, literary figures, musicians, filmmakers, churches, trade unions, and other non-government organizations. In the academic arena, there is some evidence of academics cancelling proposed joint projects with Israeli colleagues, refusing requests for research cooperation, and refusing to attend conferences in Israel. There has also been some specific banning of individual Israeli academics and scholars from international conferences.
However, no major college or university has endorsed the boycott, no American university has voted to divest Israeli shares, and a much greater number of academics internationally have signed anti-boycott rather than pro-boycott petitions. Most importantly, no Western government has endorsed a boycott, which is crucial both for Israel’s international political standing and its ability to maintain normal trade relations.
As a result, the BDS campaign has had little if any effect on key political and trade relations. It has had no impact whatsoever in regards to achieving its key political aims, or more generally in securing Israeli political or territorial concessions. On the contrary, by targeting all Israelis as the political enemy and reinforcing a siege mentality, BDS seems to be one of a number of factors that are strengthening the Israeli right wing. BDS gives no encouragement whatsoever to those Israelis seeking to negotiate a two-state solution based on mutual compromise with the Palestinians. Instead, the zero-sum nature of the BDS agenda guarantees never-ending conflict, for Israeli Jews will never unilaterally surrender and concede their national existence.
By now, most Jewish organizations worldwide have stated their support for a two-state solution based on the continuing existence of the State of Israel and the creation of a neighboring Palestinian State — but many of these organizations damn the plan with silence these days, as the Netanyahu government has shown little intent to pursue the two-state solution, despite its being official Israeli policy. Nevertheless, given that before the 1993 Oslo agreements, neither the Israeli government nor most Jewish groups even recognized Palestinian national rights, this is quite a remarkable turn-around.
The question remains, however, as to whether this major evolution in official Israeli and Jewish opinion is reflected in action. Even Jews outside of Israel should feel challenged, now, to define what we mean by a two-state solution, including the extent of territorial withdrawal from the West Bank we think acceptable, and to outline the concrete strategies we are willing to support to promote this outcome.
In fact, current Israeli policies and actions — or inaction — play into the hands of the BDS campaign. The Israeli government claims that it wants to negotiate a two-state solution and is waiting for a suitable Palestinian partner willing to accommodate Israel’s security requirements. In practice, however, the government has failed to promote progress towards a two-state solution, and has only strengthened the Greater Israel project. Apart from the short-lived freeze on the extension of existing settlements, it has done absolutely nothing to reverse the growing presence of Jewish settlers far beyond the Green Line (that is, pre-1967) borders. The government has even talked about legalizing outposts built on private Palestinian land, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman actually lives in such a settlement, Nokdim, south of Bethlehem, well outside Israel’s recognized borders.
Such settlements are a problem precisely because they were built to prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel. This remains the case, irrespective of what the Palestinians say or do. We all know that there are massive barriers to peace on the Palestinian side: the absolutism of their political culture; the continued demands for a literal rather than symbolic return of 1948 refugees to Israel; and the still-growing influence of Hamas, a racist, fundamentalist group that opposes any coexistence with Israel and uses violence as a first resort. Yet just as the Palestinians have choices to make regarding actions that either resolve or prolong the conflict, so do the Israelis.
I would recommend the following. The new Israeli coalition government should take advantage of its flexible political power to issue a statement that it plans to dismantle all Jewish settlements east of the security barrier over the next five years. This would require some seventy thousand settlers to be evacuated. The precise details for the implementation of the plan should be negotiated with the Palestinian Authority and the international community, and time should be allowed for all those settlers to be paid adequate compensation and find suitable housing within Green Line Israel. In addition, the government should state that Israeli troops will remain in place in the West Bank until such time as the Palestinian Authority, preferably with the assistance of an international peace-keeping force (as Mahmoud Abbas himself has suggested), can demonstrate its ability to maintain a peaceful border with Israel.
The vast majority of settlers will remain in the larger settlement blocs — which constitute about 8.6 per cent of the West Bank, including forty-nine settlements and 190,000 settlers — with the long-term aim of exchanging this territory with the Palestinians for appropriate territory inside Israel.
Such a proposal would conclusively demonstrate that the Israeli people are committed to making the significant concessions required for a two-state solution, and would place the onus on the Palestinians to demonstrate their own willing to compromise. It would certainly defang the BDS campaign by reminding everybody that both sides have to give significant ground if there is to be a resolution to the conflict.

Philip Mendes directs the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Jews and Australian Politics (Sussex Academic Press, 2004). He is currently preparing Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance for publication in late 2013.