A recent defense of BDS by Nada Elia highlights the critical strategic flaw dominating current pro-Palestinian activism. Elia responds to an essay by Yonathan Mizrachi, in which he lays out how BDS ignores crucial differences between the economic context of 1980s South Africa and that of contemporary Israel. Instead of refuting Mizrachi, Elia sets aside the question of economic efficacy altogether, arguing that the true force of BDS lies in the “conversations” that the movement is initiating. But in recasting the movement as a discursive vehicle, she highlights how BDS is not merely ineffective, but counterproductive. For the flawed historical narrative these “conversations” convey damages the chances of establishing equality between Israelis and Palestinians.
BDS activists invariably dismiss the existential concerns of the Israeli electorate as delusional paranoia at best and disingenuous obfuscation at worst. Instead, they seek to amplify anti-Israel, and often anti-Israeli moral outrage by obscuring the historical dynamic driving the current conditions. Elia’s dismissal of all previous initiatives demonstrates how this works.
All proposed “solutions” prior to BDS hinged on the idea that “both sides” were indeed victimized, without a mention of the fact that while Israel may have been founded with a combination of guilt and victimhood as a result of European anti-Semitism, Palestinians were not the culprit.
The reason there is “no mention” of this is that it is a classic red herring, a double falsehood implying that the conflict began with Israel’s foundation in 1948 and that Zionism punishes Palestinians for European viciousness. But Jews did not simply show up out of nowhere at the end of WWII and kick Arabs off their land to make room for their refugees, and the international community did not rubber-stamp these efforts as reparation for the holocaust. What occurred in 1948 was primarily driven by the prior half-century in Palestine, the historical record of which implicates Palestinian Arabs along with Zionist Jews in generating the violence that has led us to where we are today.
Violence between Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews began with tensions surrounding the arrival of Jewish migrants in the late Ottoman period at the turn of the 20th century. Most of these early Zionists sought to build Jewish communities and reinvigorate Jewish life in the Land of Israel under difficult conditions and without harming their Arab neighbors. Some harbored nationalist-statist ambitions and their organized acquisition of land for purposes of expanding the Jewish community frightened Palestinian Arabs. However, a longstanding tradition of xenophobic discrimination against Jews in this region predating Zionism played a major role as well. Relations between Jews and Arabs in this land have a complex history, including warm cross-communal relations between individuals and between families, but also anti-Jewish discrimination, enforced marginalization, and open violence. When Zionism began, it posed no immediate danger of dominating, occupying, or displacing Palestinian Arabs. Projecting the conditions of 1948 or the oppressive realities in the West Bank and Gaza post-1967 back onto the early decades of Zionist migration is an anachronism that obscures prior treatment of Jews by Arabs.
Activists often respond with apologetics that cast anti-Zionist violence as the natural opposition of the indigenous to the colonizers. It wasn’t anti-Semitic, they argue, but resistance to these particular Jews, who unlike members of pre-Zionist Jewish communities were dedicated to creating a state that would exclude Arabs or continue their subjection. Subjection is indeed something to be resisted, but Palestinian Arabs had tolerated it for centuries under Ottoman Muslims and their local Effendi representatives, suggesting that it wasn’t the specter of subjection that they opposed so much as the influx of too many Jews. Indeed, this period also witnessed significant Arab immigration — a fact that has been abused to argue spuriously against Palestinian rights — but Palestinian Arabs only opposed Jewish immigration. And they occasionally did so violently, leading to the organization of the first Jewish militias to defend Jewish communities.
We might look at these early Zionists as foreign usurpers, or we might look at them as migrants who were indeed bound to change the character of their destination, just as any major influx of a different ethnic group into a particular neighborhood does, unsettling its residents. Furthermore, the nationalist-statist goals were not universal among early Zionist settlers. Many were ambivalent about Jewish statehood. Some explicitly envisioned a federated republic of the Jewish and Arab working classes. This ambivalence was widespread enough that it split the movement, with Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky founding Revisionist Zionism, focused directly on the goal of statehood, which evolved into today’s Likud party.
The end of WWI inaugurated the British Mandate, with the Balfour Declaration, and the the San Remo Conference of the League of Nations stoking Arab concerns. These concerns should have been, and indeed could have been addressed more effectively. Contrary to what many on the right argue today, these documents did not designate Palestine in its entirety as a future Jewish state, but committed to establishing a Jewish “National Home in Palestine” (emphasis added). Both the political framework and geographical parameters of this entity were purposely left vague. These documents explicitly support Jewish immigration, self-ruling institutions, and land purchase, none of which required subjecting or displacing Palestinian Arabs, though these efforts were occasionally mismanaged and abuses did occur. In fact, these documents are equally explicit in upholding the rights of non-Jews in Palestine. But tensions escalated, culminating in the convulsions of 1929, when the ancient Jewish community of Hebron was massacred and the violent dynamic of the conflict was set, with increasingly mutual violence.
From 1929 on, there have indeed been two sides. Both sides have suffered and have committed violence. Both sides have sought national self-determination and both have sought to deny the other, invoking the other side’s rejection as justification for its own. Unless one dismisses the legitimacy of Jewish rights to freedom and security in the Land of Israel as such, in which case one should be honest about that, there is no moral difference between each side’s objectives of seeking to be part of a self-determining majority, and both sides’ actions and policies have at times been both politically and morally unacceptable. What ultimately distinguishes them is that both sides did not win.
The Holocaust is mostly relevant here in that it added urgency to the establishment of the State of Israel in the eyes of Jews and aroused some amount of sympathy for it in the eyes of the international community, which nonetheless did not disregard Palestinian Arabs. In 1947, with thousands of displaced Jewish survivors looking to immigrate to Palestine, Zionists accepted the UN Partition plan, outlining a Jewish state and an Arab state that would function as an economic union, a sort of confederation with an internationalized Jerusalem. Palestinians and the Arab states backing them rejected this plan. Their rejection has received many retroactive explanations, some cogent and others less so. But none justify the genocidal rhetoric with which it was articulated, and which Jews took very seriously. On the eve of the ensuing war, Hassan al-Banna, founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was quoted in the NY Times as promising to “throw the Jews into the sea,” a phrase that was then picked up by Haj Amin al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, and Arab League field commander in 1948, Fawzi al-Qawukji, a WWII veteran of the German Wehrmacht.
When Nada Elia invokes the false equivalence between Palestinian suffering and European anti-Semitism, she obscures all Ottoman and Mandatory Palestinian history, casting Israeli violence against Palestinians as altogether unprovoked and motivated by base racial/tribal animus and colonialist rapaciousness. This then justifies or excuses all Arab violence against Jews. Indeed, she performs this ideological over-determination by directly pivoting from the quote above to the present, declaring:
In the Palestine/Israel equation, there is, very strictly, an oppressor and an oppressed, an occupier and an occupied, one nation, Israel, violating the human rights of the other, with no reciprocation. Just as there is no such thing as reverse racism, or reverse sexism, there is no reverse occupation. Israel is defending its ethno-religious supremacy, and its illegal occupation, Palestinians are resisting their dispossession and disenfranchisement.
Obscuring the genesis of the conflict obscures the dynamics of which still drive it. Though she is correct about its untenability, her historiographic malpractice misleads people regarding its causes and thence how to think about solutions.
A critical mass of Israeli Jews is convinced that what Palestinians truly want is not a political reorganization that extends equality to all, but for Jews to disappear, either to leave or to die. As such, the vast political, material, and military disparity privileging Israel is sincerely held as necessary, precisely as protection from “dispossession and disenfranchisement” and worse.
Israel’s militarism and its investment in violence is and always has been primarily motivated by an existential imperative. Unlike colonial oppression, its raison d’etre is not to ensure privilege and control of resources, but the very lives of its citizens. This is not to say that Zionist Jews have not abused the situation for illiberal ideological motives. They certainly have. Zionism, like Palestinian nationalism, has its more and less liberal expressions. But Zionism has always fundamentally been about a renewal of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel, which should never have entailed a negation of Arab national life in Palestine. It should never have become the zero sum game that it has, but culpability for this does indeed lie with “both sides.”
Dismissing and alienating the Israeli electorate is a terrible mistake. Popular Israeli perceptions, like popular Palestinian perceptions, have more immediate effective power to change the dynamic than anything else. And these perceptions are interdependent. But when has any pro-Palestinian movement focused an appeal to Israeli voters, addressing their concerns instead of dismissing them or demonizing them? The truth is that most Israelis do not want to dominate Palestinians. Many are sympathetic to Palestinian suffering and meticulously respectful of Palestinian individuals, their culture, and their religion. Most Israelis do not love raising their children toward military service. The only thing that makes this situation tolerable for them is the conviction so many currently share that every other conceivable alternative would lead to catastrophe. The quickest way to break the logjam is to persuade them that this is mistaken and ensure that it really is.
None of this means that Israel has been morally infallible. Far far from it. While historians, both professional and amateur, may argue about what led 750,000-800,000 Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes in 1948, the Israeli government refused to allow them to return, displaced thousands more internally, destroyed countless Arab communities and built Jewish communities on top of them. Israel must face this history. The excuse that war is hell does not justify everything done to civilians in wartime or its aftermath. Israel must face the fact that its Knesset, the seat of its parliamentary government, its Supreme Court, the Israel Museum, and the Hebrew University campus housing its National Library, all monuments to its liberal and democratic commitments, are built on top of the ruins of a Palestinian Arab community named Sheikh Badr. But there is another side to this. For it was indeed a war, and though Jews won, Jewish communities were also attacked and massacred. For instance, the men of Kfar Etzion were summarily executed after surrendering.
Were it true that Palestinians do not and never had anything against Jews, but only against Zionists, as is so often proclaimed, the rejection of Partition in 1947 would not have been accompanied by genocidal incitement and a military campaign, but with the counter-proposal of a single liberal nation state recognizing both Arab and Jewish historical connections to the land, ensuring equal rights for all, and welcoming Jewish immigration while setting up institutions and processes to ensure that this did not disadvantage Palestinian Arabs. But this is not what happened. That they were willing to live with a small number of Jews as a tolerated minority among them does not mean that Jews were welcome as their equals. Had either Palestinian nationalists or Israeli Zionists been exemplary liberals, things would look very differently. But neither are exemplary anything. Both have proven themselves to be all too human.
As for the present, BDS activists insist that ending the occupation would immediately make Jews safer. But what would happen if Israel were to withdraw all its forces and settlements from the West Bank and dismantle the blockade on Gaza unilaterally? Would there be a festival of reconciliation followed by harmonious multi-cultural neighborliness? BDS never addresses the day after occupation.
Currently, there is indeed no parity between Palestinians and Israelis. But many otherwise liberal Israelis believe that maintaining this disparity is existentially necessary. This conviction is rooted in conditions obtaining between Israelis and Palestinians that can be traced to the late Ottoman period. Both communities believe in the historical validity of their rights, both have fought to secure them, and neither have done nearly enough to understand and accept the validity of the other. Pushing Israel, cast as the sole aggressor, to end the occupation without advocating a solution that ensures its people’s rights and addresses their existential concerns, ignores the historical dynamic that has us locked in enmity.
Military rule over millions of non-consenting Palestinians in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza must indeed end, and cannot end too soon. But they must end by creating a path to equality and security for both sides. The only possible moral justification for curtailing another people’s freedom is the existential necessity of self-defense. Those who seek change, especially Israelis and Palestinians themselves, must create a reality in which the current disparity no longer appears existentially necessary to the majority of Israeli voters. Until then, the conflict will continue with majorities on both sides harboring fantasies of the absence of the other and refusing to recognize the historical validity and experience of their counterparts.
Only a bi-national, or international movement that promotes equality, security, and dignity for both sides as necessary, beneficial, and inter-dependent will solve this impasse. This is not what BDS offers. This is what it impedes. For its one-sidedness strengthens the zero sum game perspective according to which there can only be one victor. Members of both communities must face the full historical complexity and shared culpability of this conflict’s dynamic. This will be exponentially harder for Palestinians, being on the losing end of a radical disparity. But that doesn’t mean that it is any less necessary. And doing so is far from impossible, if one abandons cynical dogmas about racist and fascist Israel. Better to address Israeli voters as humans and show them a viable way out that does not leave them positioned on the edge of history’s dust-bin, or to use another classic analogy, its slaughter-bench.
Progressives committed to equality of human and civil rights should put their energies toward addressing the concerns of both peoples and creating solidarity with members of both sides who oppose violence and favor liberty. This is a kind of mobilization we have yet to see on a significant, sufficiently popular scale. Anyone who tells you that we have, and that it has failed, isn’t telling you the truth.