Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's Left of BDS?

I am always amused (in a sardonic way, of course), when I see the self-proclaimed radicals of the anti-Israel “BDS” (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement dismiss their critics as “right-wing.” Some are. Many are not.

And that’s just the problem: the BDS zealots make it easy on themselves by hurling smear words. One size hits all. Why bother to target your opponents’ ideas when you can fire back with slogans rather than arguments?

It is ironic in more ways than one. We’ve been there before. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the issue was the SDS rather than BDS, and when one of the soi-disant ultra-radicals arrogantly questioned the progressive credentials of Irving Howe, the great socialist famously put him in his place. And long before that, Lenin dealt with the problem when he diagnosed the “infantile disorder” of “left-wing communism."

Unlike their predecessors of the 1920s and 1960s, however, many of the younger activists who most pride themselves on their “leftist” credentials have no clue as to the leftist tradition. (After all, these are people who think “reactionary” means “reactive,” and who believe that informed political action derives from wearing a keffiyeh rather than reading Kapital.) If they did, they would be for the solidarity of all peoples rather than elevating one nationalism above others (in fact, only one other). They would be more aware of the dangers of antisemitism: of the noble tradition of the left in opposing it, and of the ignoble lapses of the left in at times downplaying or even cultivating it. They would have no truck with the notion that they should ally themselves with objectively reactionary and clerico-fascist forces such as Hamas and Hizbullah, which espouse policies that, if issuing from the mouth of a Christian evangelical “fundamentalist,” would earn instant and pitiless condemnation.

Many opponents of BDS on the left may in fact share some of the critiques of Israeli policy advanced by BDS advocates, but they differ in their motives, their assessment of the overall situation or the tactics, or all of the above. Above all, they are committed to a realistic vision of peace, defined as two peoples living in two states created by mutual agreement and based on national reconciliation.

That is the position of the Socialist InternationalTrade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine, and other progressive groups dedicated to practical action rather than acting out.

Some of the most provocative thinking comes from the British far left.  Although these marginal groups aren’t going to bring about a revolution anytime soon, their analysis of some aspects of the Middle East conflict—particularly, the objective and subjective failings of the BDS movement—is spot on. Interestingly, they have no problem in condemning in the strongest terms the “occupation,” Operation Cast Lead, and the IDF confrontation with the Jihadis on the Mavi Marmara, without, however, concluding that Israel is a genocidal apartheid state that must be destroyed.

Because this discourse is not well known in the States, or indeed, in most mainstream circles, I’ll offer a few extended quotes, with links to the full texts:

"Why left-wing students should not support boycotts of Israel":
We believe solidarity with the Palestinians should be the left’s starting point on the question of Israel/Palestine. But we believe that the proposal to boycott Israel is reactionary, counter-productive and will hinder efforts to build an effective movement of solidarity with the Palestinians. . . . .
Why boycotts will not help the Palestinians

We oppose the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel both because we are against oppression in general, and because it undermines the development of the kind of politics we want to see in the Middle East – revolutionary politics, with workers of different national and religious groups uniting in the struggle against capitalism. Unless they fight for the right of every people to freely determine their own future – a right the Palestinians are currently denied – workers in the region will never build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalism.

So the urge to “do something” for the Palestinians is a good one. But boycotts of Israel are not a good thing to do. They are likely to be ineffective; in so far as they are effective they will harm the Palestinian cause, and have other negative consequences too. . . .

Many, perhaps most, Israelis support their own government's policy. The Palestinians have every right to struggle for their freedom now, regardless of what support they have in Israel. But what they need most of all is Israeli allies. . . .

It will most likely take big political (and social) upheavals within Israel to force it to change policy. In fact, it will probably require the replacement of this Israeli government by a very different one. So the attitude of most Israelis matters. . . .

This left, broadly defined, is small and weak, like in Britain, but it exists. It needs support and solidarity.

There is also, of course, the Israeli working class, the great majority of which is ethnically 'Jewish'. Parts of it are organised, and have fought big struggles. Most workers, and at least the leaders of their trade union organisations too, currently support the government. But as socialists, we think it is self-evident that what Israeli workers think should be of concern.

Boycotts will certainly weaken the left, internationalist, pro-Palestinian wing inside Israel, and strengthen the right, by making Israelis feel as if a hostile world is pressing down on them (of the course the history of the Holocaust and anti-semitism play a role here too). The more effective they are - for instance, the more Israelis lose their jobs or livelihoods as a result - the stronger this negative impact will be. Boycotts will harm, not help, the Palestinians. . . .

Is Israel “the” problem? Should we support any measure that hits Israel?

Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is a big part of the problem; the major problem, in fact, and the one we should focus on. But it is not the only problem. A big part of what is wrong with the way some left-wingers talk about Israel-Palestine is their totally one-sided and un-nuanced condemnation of Israel.

What, for instance, about the fact that most of Israel’s neighbours do not and have never recognised its right to exist – and have tried to crush it in three wars (1947, 1967, 1973)? What about the fact that many Arab states have also mistreated the Palestinians (particularly Jordan, which has carried out terrible massacres)? Israel’s imperialism, its chauvinism, its nationalism (Zionism) have to be understood within a network of interlocking, antagonistic and mutually reinforcing imperialisms, chauvinisms and nationalisms. Again, this is not to excuse Israel’s crimes, but to understand their context – and therefore understand how to fight them. To refuse to do this means distorting reality, and therefore, in effect, giving up on changing it.

We repeat: the urge to do something to stop oppression is good. That does not mean that doing anything, no matter how harmful and counterproductive, is a good idea. (read the rest)
The article goes on to insist that the answer is solidarity: with both Palestinians and Israeli workers. It also, and more provocatively, characterizes the BDS movement as implicitly antisemitic, a topic taken up more directly in the following piece:

"What is left anti-semitism?"
What is “left-wing anti-semitism”? Where is it manifested? What is to be done about it?
. . . left-wing anti-semitism knows itself by another and more self-righteous name, “anti-Zionism”. Often, your left-wing anti-semite sincerely believes that he or she is only an anti-Zionist, only a just if severe critic of Israel. . . .
The objector continues: Israel deserves criticism. . . . To equate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is just crude and hysterical Zionist apologetics.

No, by “left-wing anti-semitism” we emphatically do not mean political, military, or social criticism of Israel and of the policy of Israeli governments. Certainly, not all left-wing critics of Israel or Zionism are anti-semites, even though these days all anti-semites, including the right-wing, old-fashioned, and racist anti-semites, are paid-up “anti-Zionists”.
Israel frequently deserves criticism. Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories and its general treatment of the Palestinians deserve outright condemnation. The oppressed Palestinians need to be politically defended against Israeli governments and the Israeli military. The only halfway equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a viable, independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory, side by side with Israel, needs to be argued for and upheld against Israeli power. . . .

The difference here between left-wing anti-semites and honest critics of Israel — a category which includes a very large number of Israeli Jews as well as Israeli Arabs — is a straightforward one of politics, of policy.

The left-wing anti-semites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist. They use legitimate criticisms, and utilise our natural sympathy with the Palestinians, not to seek redress, not as arguments against an Israeli government, an Israeli policy, or anything specifically wrong in Israel, but as arguments against the right of Israel to exist at all. Any Israel. Any Jewish state in the area. Any Israel, with any policy, even one in which all the specific causes for justly criticising present-day Israel and for supporting the Palestinians against it have been entirely eliminated.

The root problem, say the left-wing anti-semites, is that Israel exists. The root “crime of Zionism” is that it advocated and brought into existence “the Zionist state of Israel”.

Bitterly, and often justly, criticising specific Israeli policies, actions, and governments, seemingly championing the Palestinians, your left-wing anti-semites seek no specific redress in Israel or from Israel, demanding only that Israel should cease to exist or be put out of existence.

They often oppose measures to alleviate the condition of the Palestinians short of the destruction of Israel. (read the rest)
It is striking is that this sort of frank talk is so rare: not only on the activist left, but also in the mainstream media. How is it that these Trotskyites "get it" but the bourgeois and upper-class sophisticates of the Guardian do not?

To remain on this side of the Atlantic:  Among the most moving leftist statements on the nullity of the anti-Israel infantile left was a post that appeared only recently. The blogger known as “Jew Guevara” briefly recounted the history of his own leftist evolution, from a radical proponent of peace and equality in Israel, to a yored, an ex-Israeli living abroad in voluntary exile, alienated both from his country and from its enemies. Few commentators can thus as compellingly pillory the disingenuousness and destructiveness of the BDS movement:
How odd then, to find myself dismissed as a ‘Zionist’ here and there in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Not like so many people actually know me or anything. But… there was that JATO woman at the UFPJ gathering, the trainer at the Student PSC conference, the outright verbal assualts on the activist listserve, and a picture comes to mind.

The Palestinian solidarity movement, especially as it has coalesced around the strategy of BDS, has two faces. One face is warm, friendly and intelligent. It says that BDS is a tactic not a preferred political solution. It doesn’t require B, D and S, and it can be directed at the occupation or at Israel in general - no coercion. It makes Gush Shalom feel right at home.

The other face is quite clear that the one state solution is preferred and the two state solution is dead - and good riddance. Anyone in support of an Israeli identity is a Zionist. Anyone seeking compromise with Zionists is a Zionist. Anti- or non-Zionists who refrain from calling for an end to Israel are ’soft-Zionists.’ Israelis are ‘butchers’ who commit ‘massacres’, their peace camp isn’t really for peace except for a handful, the Palestinian Authority is not only corrupt, it is ‘only corrupt’, lacking in any other attributes or identity. It’s everything awful about the 90s campus culture wars/identity politics madness, with the eager pleasure in despising whatever isn’t politically correct.

Everything I used to hate and fear about the Israeli right wing: the extremist language, the eagerness to demonize the other, the closing of ranks around a narrow set of ideas, the very harshness of the voice and tone. It’s the flattening of every nuance into a slogan or holy truth. It’s the utter impossibility of dialogue with people who feel differently.

I used to be part of that first group. Some days, I still am. But… I keep running into that second group and it turns my stomach. Sometimes it’s the same person displaying one face or the other, depending the audience. It’s as if all the experiences I have growing up in Israel and ‘putting myself out there’ as a refusenik, participant in militant demonstrations, getting arrested, working inside of majority Palestinian political organizations - count for nothing. Because I’m insisting on the slogans of my youth (Arab/Jewish unity, two states for two peoples, down with the occupation, negotiations yes/war no) somehow I’m excluded from the cool kids lunch table at the Palestinian solidarity middle school. Back in Israel, that’s who I sat with. Now they sneer at me.

But I can’t sit with the Zionist kids anymore! Not after all that stuff I said about not being a Zionist…. sniff.

I guess I’ll go sit by myself. And I am NOT a Zionist! I’m just another Israeli yored in New York waiting for the occupation to be over. So I can go home. 
[h.t./via Solomonia; and BTW, see the comment thread]
It could be our college campus (1, 2) he is describing.  I can think of few more depressing summations of the situation.

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