The BDS movement’s disingenuous universalism

In one of controversial blogger M.J. Rosenberg’s recent discussions on BDS, he claimed that a number of individuals and organizations located under the movement’s umbrella are not anti-Semitic; indeed, as Rosenberg noted, there are probably many involved whose endorsement of a boycott is a means to an end, namely the spurring forward of a two-state solution. Their embrace of a boycott as a weapon against the occupation derives more out of a sense of desperation, viewing such tactics as a last resort against an intransigent Israeli government that seems unwilling, under any circumstances save stark isolation to relinquish its grip on the West Bank. I believe that it is also essential to define what is meant by boycott, and learn to differentiate between its different strains; a refusal to patronize settlements and settler-made goods, differs from one that targets all areas under Israeli control, which is in turn radically different than what BDS proposes. As painful as it may sound (and to be clear I do not advocate or support these efforts), a blanket boycott, in theory and practice, of Israeli institutions is not anti-Semitic. It is a terribly misguided form of action, sometimes borne out of sense of frustration, and may ultimately be severely counterproductive in that it will simply drive moderate Israelis into the arms of the far-right, never mind the puzzling decision to boycott one particular state in a sea of severe human rights violators who probably deserve far greater opprobrium. Furthermore, it puts the onus primarily on only one party to the conflict, absolving the Palestinians for their own mistakes and shortcomings.

However, despite its embrace by some who truly have Israeli’s best interests at heart, I regret to say that the BDS movement, that is the official Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement established by Omar Baraghouti is in fact anti-Semitic, perhaps not in its intent, but certainly in effect, for the seemingly simple reason that it denies Jews what it claims for the Palestinian people: self-determination. As Joel Pruce of the University of Dayton argues (full disclosure: I attended a Solomon Schechter Day School with Mr. Pruce many years ago), the BDS movement has oftentimes been successful in winning the high ground in arguments against its opponents by garbing its rhetoric in the clothes of human rights, justice, and self-determination. A quick overview of the movement’s goals, therefore, look perfectly innocuous; a number of them are, in fact, quite in line with those of many liberal Zionists: the relinquishing of Israeli political and military control of the West Bank, and an end to the discrimination suffered by the Arab citizens of Israel.

It is the last of the ‘big three’, however, that raises alarm bells, calling for the complete and unhindered return of all Palestinians displaced in 1948, as well as their descendents to their original homes, automatically rendering Jews a minority, and thereby snuffing out the very rasion d’etre of the Zionist project. If, in effect, the creation of a Palestinian state and the fulfillment of Palestinian self-determination comes at the expense of Jewish self-determination, is it not then as guilty of discrimination as those amongst the far-right who seek to delegitimize the Palestinians as a people and their right to independence?

In defining Zionism, BDS supporters see no shades of gray, but a stark division of black and white; on the one side, a righteous Palestinian nationalism that seeks to remove from itself the yoke of a foreign oppressor, and on the other a frighteningly chauvinistic, supremacist ideology whose very existence threatens world order. There are no attempts to differentiate between the racism and extremism of Gush Emunim and followers of Meir Kahane, and the progressive ideals of Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Beilin; the entire apple is rotten to the core. Such an unnuanced understanding allows BDS supporters to ignore their dedication to universalism and self-determination, which, lest they be considered hypocrites, must ultimately include Zionism. After all, if such a movement is so vile, so racist, as to inflict such unspeakable horrors on others, how can it ever be considered a legitimate form of self-expression?

The BDS movement’s worldview is not simply discriminatory against Jews; it displays a shocking cruelty towards them. It is safe to say that many of its supporters are well-versed in the seemingly endless history of human suffering; it is, after all, the desire to alleviate such suffering that drew them to this movement in the first place. It is therefore almost guaranteed that such individuals have at least a passing knowledge of the millennia of misery inflicted upon the Jews, including, but not limited to the genocide of European Jewry during the Second World War. Nonetheless, the movement is able, with a clear conscience, to deny self-determination to one of the most reviled groups in human history, a group whose suffering helped lay the groundwork for the very paradigm of human and civil rights; a group whose suffering was caused in large part because of their statelessness, and who, provided with a safe haven might have avoided said discrimination altogether. Palestinian suffering has, in large part, been caused by the same statelessness that afflicted Jews for centuries, yet while the BDS movement is at pains to emphasize the former, it seems repulsed by the latter.

Which is not to perpetuate the myth, so popular amongst the Zionist far-right and anti-Zionist far-left that the State of Israel was built upon the sins of European anti-Semitism, but rather, or in addition to the genuine desire for political sovereignty, a demand made, quite legitimately, by a host of other nations. Instead, the BDS movement offers an ‘alternative’ reading of Jewish intentions in Palestine: gone are the aspirations for cultural rejuvenation and life free from constant persecution; in its place are nothing but murderous intentions, deliberate cruelty towards Arabs, subjugation of non-Jews in the name of Jewish supremacy, and of course, gone is any trace of Jewish connection to historic Palestine, as if acknowledging said connection might destroy the very possibility of Palestinian sovereignty.

As a firm believer in Zionism, it behooves me to be an equally vocal supporter of Palestinian statehood; to deny others what I demand for myself does not simply reveal me to be a hypocrite, but an undeserving one at that. It is high time that we demand from proponents of BDS what we demand for and from ourselves.

A shorter form of this article appeared in the Partners for Progressive Israel blog.

About the Author
Guy Frenkel is a New York-based American-Israeli peace activist, currently with the Blue White Future movement, as well as a number of other Israeli organizations working towards a two-state solution. All opinions expressed here are his alone.