Has BDS Transformed the Israel-Palestine Debate?

In an important essay-length survey, “BDS: How a Controversial Non-Violent Movement Has Transformed the Israeli-Palestinian Debate,” in the Guardian (August 14, 2018), Nathan Thrall, Director of the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project, argues that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in recent years has achieved significant influence in reshaping how the conflict is understood and has transformed the debate.

According to Thrall, BDS has had impact shaming and outing the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its accommodation to and collaboration with Israel; it has had impact turning Israel into a leper among liberals and progressives and pulling American liberals toward potentially greater support for the Palestinians.  It has had significant impact pressuring liberal Zionists to defend support not for an imagined aspirational Israel but for the actual Israel with occupation, settlements, land expropriations, and detentions without trial or charge.  Finally, most significantly, BDS has challenged the two-state consensus of the international community and revived old questions about the legitimacy of Zionism and the Jewish state and the privileging of Jewish rights over others in Israel/Palestine.

But while the BDS movement has been influential and a significant presence, it seems problematic to say that it has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian debate.  Thrall credits BDS for many developments actually stemming from other causes, including causes more central to the ongoing conflict.  The decline in the prospects of a two-state solution stems from the failure or refusal of Israel and of the fragmented disunited Palestinian leadership to find any way forward in negotiations, not from BDS agitating, organizing, or messaging.  The growing illiberalism of important elements in the Israeli polity are similarly not a response merely to BDS but to the continued commitment of important parts of Palestinian society self-destructively to violence.  Everything in the Middle East is transforming – states, peoples, political alliances — with uncertain impacts on Israel’s security and on Palestinian aspirations. Thrall confuses BDS as cause with BDS as a symptom or reflection of the transformation.

The BDS movement emerged out of the era of the first and second intifadas and the post-Oslo collapse of expectations about a two-state solution. It emerged from the flourishing international activism after Durban and during early resistance to the construction of Israel’s wall, and it reflected too a concerted new international effort echoing Soviet block ideology  to isolate Israel as an alleged apartheid state. Thrall reviews the BDS story as emerging primarily from Palestinian civil society and grass roots non-violent activism and indicates that its successfully united disparate campaigns around three clear demands – freedom for residents of the occupied territories, equality for Palestinian citizens in Israel, and justice for Palestinian refugees in the diaspora, meaning the right of return to Israel.  In Thrall’s evaluation this amounted to a successful conceptual reframing of the Palestinian national struggle, with a relevant goal for each of its parts.

Although Thrall never explores or says adequately what has been the real relationship between BDS and the Palestinian Authority (PA) or Hamas, something demanding greater clarification, Thrall instead focuses on the Israel government’s most recent reaction to BDS, which he believes to be so reckless and overreactive that it resembles a sort of auto-immune disease.  The recent growth in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and in activities to surveil and attack Israel de-legitimizers is one sign of this overreaction; Thrall believes too there has been an alleged escalation in efforts by Israeli leaders and others using the antisemitism label as a weapon to tag anti-Israelism as hatred of Jews.   Thrall here overstates the threat of illiberalism which has thus far resulted in only some limited refusals to admit leading known activists into Israel, although such episodes are troubling, and he adopts the stance of most hard left activists on Israel Palestine that the resort to antisemitism is a move that can only be made in bad faith.  Yet many leading BDSers and some members of Jewish Voice for Peace reject Jewish nationalism and statehood as part of a deeply held organic and conspiratorial ant-imperialist view, and many are drawn themselves to themes and claims from the classic repertoire of antisemitism. Thrall cites leftist David Shulman at Hebrew University who worries about the “virulent tonality” of the BDS movement and Thrall himself remarks on the “vehemence” of many in BDS.

Thrall also claims in a line in his essay which startles this historian that “few dispute that refugees have a right to return to their homeland.“  Few dispute? Those who know the history and aftermath of the British mandate and the outcome of partition there and elsewhere and are aware of the huge population transfers that occurred during the postwar know partition involved settling and resettling millions without a recognized right of return.  There was in the era after World War II massive displacement of populations in central Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, and South Asia without any expectation of return,    The usual documentary referent in this matter, UN General Assembly Resolution 194, did express hopes that refugees would return to their homes but does not refer whatsoever to a recognizable right of return.

In addition to crediting BDS for many developments stemming instead from the basic altering dynamics of the evolving conflict in the Middle East, where increasing elements on both sides, dangerously, are coming to favor their own one-state solution, Thrall also depicts Israel pretty much as BDS movement propaganda does – not as a complex place with many contending lines of possibility, including democratic ones. Thrall’s apparent acceptance of the Palestinian line on Zionism as inherently racist is also a disconcerting aspect of his essay.  As one colleague mentioned in an email discussion, “Thrall seemed to slip from sympathetically reporting on Palestinian perspectives to adopting them.”

What strikes this reader as most startling is the attribution of such influence to a movement that, at least in the U.S., has not succeeded in getting a single higher education institution to embrace boycott and divestment.  Save for winning momentary majorities in student government votes on a minority of campuses where BDS has campaigned – winning temporary majorities here, sometimes stealing narrow majorities there in low turnouts — BDS has not been successful at all in establishing a firm hold upon American opinion.  BDS wins less campaigns on campus than it loses, and the campaigns it wins produce no real victories other than symbolic ones. American firms have not been damaged by being named in BDS divestment campaigns.  Nor do American student activists, after a few years of activism, graduate into a growing movement offering new and more sophisticated post-collegiate ways to fly the Palestinian banner or press the Palestinian cause.  Similar small victories here and there in the cultural field barring the way to visit and perform in Israel of prominent icons are matched by celebrities who increasingly openly defy the ban, and isolated victories in Protestant church synods and general assemblies with limited following in the pews are about what the BDS movement has to show for itself.   At best, BDS may be modestly influencing the Democratic Party grass roots, shifting some in opposition to continued occupation, but paradoxically the occupation is not that which the BDS movement focuses on when it opposes Israel altogether. Despite BDS attempts to persuade that all of Israel is occupied territory, and that a true decolonization movement should roll it back and replace it, BDS has not been successful in winning adherents to this draconian view.

Nor is the picture of limits on BDS’ actual influence on opinion confined to the U.S..  Israeli economic and diplomatic relations with Africa, Asia, and even the Arab Middle East have been improving alongside BDS’s efforts, attempts to cast Israel as a pariah nation have failed to shape the way many other nations (like Nigeria, Kenya, China, India, Burma, and others), are relating to Israel, and government and city actions in European nations have badly impacted BDS . Finally, can it be true that the BDS movement, as Thrall asserts, “have effectively won the argument inside Palestine.”    Really?  Among all segments of Palestinian leadership? Then why aren’t the fragmented Palestinians united?

Other writers too have documented the unbridgeable gaps that now exist between Israel and Palestine particularly on the issues of refugee return, national sovereignty, and other matters as well. As Thrall observes elsewhere, the conflict has increasingly taken on the elemental features of its origins — “a struggle between two ethnic group between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea.”  The BDS movement seeks to erase this reality by offering a one-sided narrative that rhetorically turns one ethnic group into interlopers from outside, settler colonialists, and racists, telling a story of unrelieved imperial and colonial power, oppression, and victimization.   But the reality is that the conflict remains at its core a struggle between two national groups for national liberation and sovereignty in one small area, not a decolonial struggle, and the victims have played their own role in shaping it as well.  BDS claims about Israel/Palestine have transformed little at all.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He currently directs the Academic Engagement Network.
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