Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bad Days for BDS

BDS—the movement for Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment from Israel—has been having something of a bad run.

Even late-breaking news that Elvis Costello regretfully canceled a concert in Israel—though NB in a tortured attempt to maintain neutrality rather than as a statement of support for BDS—does not change the picture. What is noteworthy is that it takes so much pressure to attain such modest results. Gil Scott Heron finally succumbed, but the Argentine musician Charly García just performed there to great audiences and great acclaim. The list goes on.

Two major writers honored with the Israel Dan David Prize recently resisted the pressure of cultural boycotters in the name of cultural freedom and exchange. Although they demonstrably made sure to separate themselves from “the state,” their points were powerful. Amitav Ghosh said that if one boycotts Israeli academics, one would have to right to do the same to colleagues in the US, Britain, and his native India, all of whose governments are engaged in controversial combat. But he also sharply addressed the question of standards and consistency:
I do not see how it is possible to make the case that Israel is so different, so exceptional, that it requires the severing of connections with even the more liberal, more critically-minded members of that society. Is it really possible to argue that there is in that country such a unique and excessive malevolence that it contaminates every aspect of civil society, including private foundations and universities?
Margaret Atwood bemoaned the fact that “I got yelled at for saying there were two sides,” and denounced all overgeneralization and essentialism:
To boycott an individual simply because of the country he or she lives in would set a very dangerous precedent. And to boycott a discussion of literature such as the one proposed would be to take the view that literature is always and only some kind of tool of the nation that produces it — a view I strongly reject, just as I reject the view that any book written by a woman is produced by some homogeneous substance called “women.”
Most notable of all were the defeats that BDS suffered in bastions of American higher education and leftism: the University of California-Berkeley, where it lost twice, and UC-San Diego.

The shrewd, urbane, and witty Hussein Ibish (also an alumnus of UMass-Amherst, I am pleased to note), not one to go easy on Israel, got things exactly right after the first Berkeley vote. He made two key observations when he confirmed points that critics have consistently made (above and beyond arguments over the factual or ethical merits of the approach): first, the movement has been a failure, and second, that its advocates are not really interested in success as measured by their own stated goals.
The bottom line is this: if you can't get divestment through UC Berkeley, you're done. UC Berkeley is the epicenter of not only liberalism, but even radicalism, in American academia and indeed American social life in general. Frankly, I'm surprised it's proving so difficult.
. . . .
Spin is a wondrous thing, and I've rarely seen more spin in my life than has been engaged in by BDS proponents who have been trying to create the impression that there is a major movement in this direction in the United States and that is "succeeding" and, even more preposterously, "having results." . . . . BDS activists are spinning the thus far unsuccessful UC Berkeley effort (at issuing a recommendation, mind you) as a "great achievement," but I really don't think any serious person can buy that line.

The problem, ultimately, with the BDS approach as on display at UC Berkeley, and in contrast to other boycott efforts that wisely target elements of the occupation such as the settlements, as opposed to Israel itself, is that it doesn't advance any articulable or achievable political goal. No doubt that behind such efforts for the most part lurk one-state sentiments that, however noble they might be, don't actually correspond to anything plausibly achievable. Since working towards ending the occupation is the only sensible course of action under the present circumstances, and the only seriously achievable goal that would advance both the Palestinian national interest and the cause of peace, activism should be measured by the degree to which it helps to promote that goal. If another goal is intended, I think people need to be very clear about what it is, and how they hope to get there, and I really don't think anyone can really imagine that boycotts are going to be the primary tool in resolving this national conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Anyone who does think that is hopelessly, touchingly naïve. The very most generous thing one might say is that this is a movement waiting for a leadership to emerge deus ex machina that could translate its momentum, if any, into actual political results vis-à-vis Israel. If the goal is ending the occupation, then the problem with BDS is that instead of distinguishing between the occupation and Israel itself, and separating the interests of the majority of Israelis from the settlers and other proponents of maintaining the occupation at all costs, it conflates them and creates an atmosphere which encourages Israelis in general to circle the wagons against outside pressure rather than understand that ending the occupation is in their own interests.
. . .
Of course, there are plenty of people who support the broad kind of BDS that tends to unite rather than divide Israelis and which has no clear strategic aim, and who in fact are opposed to ending the occupation and prefer instead the one-state agenda aimed at the elimination of Israel and the creation of a single, democratic state in its place. For them, the fact that measures like the proposed Berkeley resolution target Israel generally is a positive thing. They've no interest in dividing Israeli society, only in confronting it. They've no interest in ending the occupation, since they don't recognize the occupation, or at least have adopted logic that doesn't allow for one to meaningfully speak in terms of an occupation, only discrimination in a single, at present undemocratic, state. Many of them also continue to talk about settlements, although that also doesn't make any sense either given their logic, although they could talk about discriminatory Jewish-only towns or something like that. It never ceases to fascinate me that one-state rhetoric continues to be so deeply mired in two-state logic (occupation, settlements, etc.), categories that make no sense once a single state agenda has been adopted. (read the rest)
So, if you won't believe me, listen to this Senior Fellow of the American Task Force on Palestine, former Communications Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and author of What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda? Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.

BDS is bad news, and bad for peace.

[updated link]

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