Reflection on a Jewish Position on BDS, and the Question of Effectiveness

Few topics of conversation elicit the same level of online vitriol as the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Zionism; Occupation; Boycotts, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS), Jihad, and Intifada are all words that elicit immediate visceral reactions among the Muslim and Jewish people I know and work with. The public discourse around these topics is toxic, loaded and dominated by radical voices.

A friend of mine, a Jewish academic, engaged with me recently about an article I’d posted on Facebook and the exchange was frank, open and level-headed. He agreed to let me post his comments on my blog.

To that end, I offer my blog space to anyone who is weary of fighting with ideologues on social media, and would like to share their own nuanced thoughts, concerns and feelings on the situation here anonymously.

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Why is BDS so heavily focused on boycotting Israeli universities and concert halls? Because academics and entertainers are among the leading supporters of BDS. They are boycotting where they have control—over their scholarly associations and over their tours.

Surely some of them concede that it’s far from the ideal way to grow an ethical movement, because in some ways it’s unethical to boycott scholars, but boycotters’ ego tends to help override such doubts. That is, academics and entertainers tend to like to see themselves as avant-garde, imagining their boycott will continue to grow in scope and effectiveness [and in ethicality], following their lead.

Anyway the contrast with South Africa may be instructive. Western academics struggled and achieved a lot by demanding divestment of university endowments from Apartheid South Africa. I don’t recall anyone calling for a boycott of Boer scholars. It would hardly have been much of a pressure point—the regime hardly cared much about its scholars. And it hardly would have seemed likely that a boycott of Boer scholars would snowball into anything, because the general population of potential activists hardly cared much categorically either about where a few scholars might get barred from going.

A few years ago, this article by Rabinowitz would hardly have been credible, but now I do find it credible that the writer, like some others, grants that an economic boycott may well be an ethical tactic. The potential for a political campaign’s effectiveness is always hard to gauge, but meanwhile economic boycotts of Israel are reportedly growing for the past couple of years. So should the academic boycotters should change emphasis to promote divestment? Arguably the academic boycotts are empowering the economic boycotts, and surely the BDS movement is betting that such trend will continue.

Congruently, we’ve seen over the past decade that those who prioritize only action supporting a “two-states solution” are losing credibility as generations pass without enough progress. The “two-states” advocacy is highly ethical in itself, but over time, inasmuch as it’s counterfactual, it becomes unethical. That is, many observers agree that a “two-states solution” is becoming increasingly unlikely: that doesn’t mean it’s entirely unforeseeable, but it means that any ethical position probably needs to take into account A) that indisputably it’s failed to materialize for generations, and B) while hope is good, activists aiming to take an ethical position should not be satisfied with perpetuating the status quo here.

Such doubts have not so much applied to BDS while it is still young and growing, but actually it does make sense to ask where BDS leads. It’s fair to say that nobody knows for sure where it leads. So one can choose to bet, or not, that BDS will be effective towards net justice.

I daresay most activists don’t go that far, because most are concerned only with what ethical position can we take today. There are good reasons for de-prioritizing advocacy for “two states,” including the basic reason that there is no way at hand that we can advance the process towards a viable Palestinian state. So: BDS?

Rabinowitz writes, “Those who believe that Israel should not have been created or that it now no longer has the privilege to carry on . . . must come clean about seeking a post-Israel endgame; they must specify the process they think might lead there; and they must openly and realistically assess the price those on the ground might have to pay for it.”

I’m not sure I fully agree with these claims of his, but they do point up the expectation of many activists that Israel should become Palestine, and if Hamas wins a general election in the new Palestine then the people who are now Israel’s citizens should become ruled by Hamas (or emigrate if they can).

Activists imply that third parties should make this happen. If the boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are effective enough, then they will compel Israel’s rulers to hand over power? Like the Boers surrendered state power to the ANC in South Africa? I don’t know the Boers very well, but they did have a fallback homeland (the Netherlands), and they had no scriptural, ancient claim to South Africa. Boer peoplehood was not based on surviving genocide. The Boers had a united, trusted ANC to whom they eventually handed state power. There’s nothing like the ANC for Palestine/Israel. Meanwhile I know some Jewish Israelis fairly well. As a people they have no fallback homeland. Many of them will die fighting before surrendering their grasp on state power to Hamas or anything like it.

We crave simplicity, in order to take an ethical stance. So we take South Africa as a precedent. But in other ways the situation of BDS against Israel is unprecedented, especially insofar as its cutting edge for the past few years is not divestment or sanctions, but boycotting of Israeli scholars. As BDS continues to focus heavily on boycotting Israeli academics, eventually it will lose some of its ethical appeal. A friend of mine wrote once that one should always side with the colonized against the colonizer, but the same people can be both. Historically the Japanese people has been colonized, and its also been a colonizing people. In its history the Ashkenazim have been colonized, and in Israel today they’re colonizers. When a coalition of powerful institutions around the world boycotts the scholars at Israel’s few universities, this action is supposed to support the colonized Palestinian people: maybe it will, yet to join such coalition still may be a colonial act, especially for Americans.

Moreover BDS won’t always be so young. Years are passing. Lots of observers, including even many furious yet largely hopeful observers, nevertheless expect decades to pass, and more generations, without huge breakthroughs. So the expectation that boycotting Israeli academics is going to tip the scales back to justice, . . . may lose a lot of credibility if breakthroughs don’t come within a decade or so.

Meanwhile academic boycotters have argued that to boycott Israeli universities is not to boycott Israeli scholars, but in practice that’s not true: certain scholarly associations, as policy of their boycotts, shun Israelis based at Israeli universities. If this tactic is ethical, then surely it’s ethical to discuss it plainly. When academic boycotters dissemble about this point—as they too often do—then they hardly seem to be acting ethically.

Until quite recently, Jewish voices on BDS lacked a range of options between knee-jerk opposition, or at the other extreme, supporting the platform and tactics endorsed by BDS leaders. The main compromise position was to boycott the settlements only. But in the past year I’ve not heard anyone promoting a boycott of the settlements. Now I think it’s getting a bit easier for some Jewish activists on the Left to oppose academic boycotts without condemning the whole enterprise of economic boycotts against Israel.

It’s an ethical challenge how anyone should proceed facing questions of complicity, and questions of these boycotts. I envy the moral certainty of those who claim they know what’s categorically best for all of “us” to do. Meanwhile I remain skeptical of academic boycotts.

One can’t ignore the larger, terrible injustice. One must do something, say something.

One should avoid adding to the harm, though, and that’s much harder than it may seem. Some harm may accrue to ourselves, if deepening our involvement in the conflict makes us more hateful.

Ideally one makes one’s best ethical decision and commits to it. Yet in practice our decisions are social and in flux. Taking care of one’s soul isn’t necessarily easy. One must factor this need. While I’m not proud that I ever ignore any injustice, much less this set of injustices, still I admit sometimes I do—and moreover I admit that sometimes I ignore it on purpose, even.

Finally, I don’t typically remind myself that I’m American, except when I address this controversy. And then, without forgetting how fucked up the USA is, I’m grateful for the USA.

Yet I’m not sure I’m called to try to make Palestine/Israel more like the USA. I’m not sure what priority this conflict deserves for me as an American, or as a Jewish American.

And though I don’t think we can compensate here for what goes on there, I confess to trying. All these efforts are ethically complex.

Part of my identity—probably a bigger part than most activists who are not Jewish or Muslim or Israeli or Arab—is tied to the perpetuation of a terrible injustice. I’m relieved, if a bit ashamed, that most of the time, I don’t even think about it, and often when I do think of it, I’m finding solidarity, often with Muslims, but not around boycotts, not around economic divestments, and not around political sanctions. (Meanwhile when I criticize Israel pubicly, that’s a form of sanction, and when I help encourage Jewish Americans to follow me in decreasing support of the Israeli regime, that’s a form of divestment.)

If I could, I’d like to find an ethical position that eliminates my complicity with injustice. But even as I get drawn to supporting economic boycotts of Israel, I continue to pay US taxes and am hardly optimistic that they’ll be used towards justice in Palestine. So partly for this reason, I remain quite wary of any sense that American supporters of BDS are on a path to eliminating their complicity in the injustice.

-EH