Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BDS: What's it Good For?

The tragic conflict involving the Gaza blockade has lent new life to ongoing debates over the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment) movement (which, as readers will know, has also muddied the waters here at Hampshire College in recent years).  Although much of the debate over the incident at the end of May understandably focused on the substance of the issues—the legality or ethical propriety of this action or that on the part of either Israel or its opponents—the fact that this debate was vigorously and promptly waged in the "new" and "social" media as well as the traditional or mainstream press represented something of a new development, spawning a debate about the debate.

As both proponents and opponents of BDS affirm (the former, when they are being honest, at any rate), the movement is really about indirect or ultimate rather than practical or short-term results: a kind of "branding" and an attempt to delegitimize a state rather than to bring about a shift in its policies.  (A recent study by the Reut Institute most strongly makes this case.)  Opponents are united in condemning the rationale and practice of delegitimization, but divided in assessing the extent to which it is objectively threatening (versus conceptually or morally objectionable).

According to one point of view, the delegitimization movement has won, not least because its opponents were been slow to recognize and slower to combat it.  According to another point of view, it is a threat, but one that should not be exaggerated, representing, as it does, a sort of desperate fallback strategy in the absence of success on any front that really counts (particularly, a military option).  The two of course are not entirely irreconcilable, for each contains elements of insight whose validity depends in part on relative emphasis.  Divestment expert Jon Haber reviews and assesses the positions here.  And today's Jerusalem Post has a major piece by Jon, in which he surveys the history, results, and prospects of the BDS movement in particular:
BDS: Nuisance or genuine threat?
The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is entering its second decade with little to show for itself beyond marginal support.

Those involved with boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns targeting Israel like to use the 2005 call by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel as the start date for their “movement.” This is despite the fact that BDS and the “apartheid strategy” behind it (designed to have Israel replace apartheid South Africa as a global pariah) began in 2001 at the NGO meeting associated with the now-notorious Durban “anti-racism” conference.

The revised launch date for boycott and divestment campaigns serves two purposes: to portray a project that began as a coordinated effort by Arab and Western NGOs as “welling up from Palestinian civil society,” and to flush a series of BDS disasters that took place between 2001 and 2006 down the memory hole.

BDS first hit the media radar with a series of petition-driven divestment campaigns on American college campuses. While these succeeded in drawing attention to the BDS project, after nearly 10 years of effort not one college or university has divested of a single share of stock in companies identified by divestment advocates as supporting the Jewish state. (read the rest)
Part of what is so interesting here is that all this raises broader questions for the historian or social scientist, above and beyond this particular tragic and enduring conflict.  We are living in a sort of transitional era.  Wars, like any political or social action, have always been to some extent a matter of symbolic power or intangibles:  legitimacy and popular support (even in the pre-democratic era or under dictatorships), perceived success or failure, and so forth.  And yet, in an age in which war is no longer seen as a natural extension of politics, in which traditional, formal state-on-state conflict has given way to "asymmetrical warfare" involving non-state actors, and in which at least our collective publicly iterated moral tolerance (real or feigned, consistent or selective) for violence is greatly diminished—under such circumstances, it may be that this conflict, no less than Vietnam in the era of the Cold War and anticolonialism, will provide the quintessential testing ground for the changing theory and practice of both warfare and political struggle in the information age.

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