The case for dialogue over boycott
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most inflammatory topics when it comes to hosting events on university campuses in the UK. When former IDF officer Hen Mazzig was invited to speak at University College London recently, pro-Palestinian students aggressively and loudly protested against somebody whom they falsely characterised to be a demonic war criminal. Their accusations derived not from the specific nature of Mazzig’s service in the IDF, not because of crimes he is known to have committed, no – their smear campaign against Mazzig derived from the simple fact that he has served in the IDF at all. Never mind that his work revolved around the provision of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, work that involved close cooperation and coordination with the Palestinian Authority and numerous international organisations: Mazzig was Israeli, and therefore unwelcome.
Unfortunately, we can only expect to see many more attempts to no-platform Israeli speakers, for ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ is fast approaching. Their website describes the campaign as an “international series of events that seek to raise awareness of Israel’s apartheid system over the Palestinian people and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement”. Central to the revisionist narrative of these pro-BDS, pro-Palestinian activists is a fundamental opposition to the concepts of constructive dialogue and debate. They steadfastly advance the idea that campaigns to build bridges and foster dialogue are a far less viable solution to the struggles faced by the Palestinians than the campaign to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction the State of Israel. Hosting Israeli speakers to discuss the many complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a step towards promoting peace within their paradigm, but rather one of the many ways that Israel’s undemocratic rule of Palestinians is accepted and normalised. Pro-BDS activists are opposed even to liberal Zionist rhetoric, for they believe that their refusal to endorse BDS constitutes a failure to face up to the material reality of the Palestinians. Indeed, they posit that even engaging in the culture of dialogue and reasoned debate renders the human rights of Palestinians up for theoretical discussion.
These are the fundamental assertions and guiding principles of today’s pro-Palestinian activists in the diaspora, whose voice is becoming increasingly more loud and intimidating on university campuses. Any discussion which does not endorse a boycott of Israel constitutes a whitewashing of the struggles and injustices faced by Palestinians, thus setting up Friends of Palestine societies as the only people with the grounds to voice their perspective on the conflict. This however sets a dangerous precedent which materially discriminates against and excludes Jewish students, the vast majority of whom agree that Zionism and Israel comprise a central part of their identity. The pro-BDS community needs to realise just why it is that Friends of Israel societies and Jewish students so adamantly adhere to the principles of free speech and dialogue: it is not because they mindlessly seek to defend Israel from any form of criticism, but because they feel that the rhetoric that BDS endorses fundamentally threatens their very existence, and more often than not frightens, intimidates, and discriminates against them.
The pro-BDS camp is correct in demanding that the basic human rights of Palestinians should not be up for reasoned debate. But the intent of endorsing dialogue as opposed to boycott is never to deny the right of the Palestinians for statehood, their ongoing suffering, or the injustices that they have endured. The intent of dialogue is to open up a space for listening, learning, and understanding of different perspectives. Dialogue is about respect, which the BDS movement seems to lack for the Jewish community. In a culture of dialogue, there is absolutely space for the deeply frustrated pro-Palestinian activists to voice their point of view and to be heard. Moreover, when students who identify as pro-Israel – which is not antagonistic to the principles of self-determination and human rights for Palestinians – host Israeli speakers or events discussing the conflict, this does not render the human rights of Palestinians theoretical. A left-leaning Israeli speaker openly criticising and debating the policies of his or her government on campus clearly does not legitimise or normalise Israel’s occupation in the West Bank. Dialogue therefore is not counter-productive to the goal of achieving statehood for the Palestinians, as the BDS community argues. In fact, the ways that dialogue can bring people together and foster a culture of respect actually serves to bring that goal closer.
The human rights of Palestinians are not up for ‘reasoned debate’, but neither is the right of the Jewish people for self-determination and political sovereignty in their historical and religious homeland. Zionism is not for debate, nor for defamation as an illegitimate or racist ideology. The fundamental rights of Jewish people are not up for debate, let alone for denial, vilification, or boycott. This is why the way in which the pro-BDS camp so vehemently decries Jewish nationalism and slanders even the left-leaning, liberal form of Zionism, is so deeply concerning. It implicates that the move to boycott Israel is fundamentally embedded in the idea that Israel should not exist as a state. It denies the essential human right of self-determination for one side of the conflict. Indeed, the most intimidating catchcry of Friends of Palestine societies is “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, the implications of which are obvious. The hypocrisy of a movement that claims the moral high ground in their pursuit of justice and statehood for Palestinians, while simultaneously denying the right to self-determination of the other side, is simply mind-boggling. The fact that more people are not outraged by the extremism of BDS’s rejectionist stance of the very idea of Jewish nationalism is utterly dumbfounding. The pro-BDS community urgently needs to stop ignoring the consensus of the majority of Jewish communities in the diaspora who have openly stated how deeply offensive they find their vilification of Zionism to be, and face up to the material reality of their anti-Judaism and intimidation of Jewish students on campus. In the face of absurdity, rejectionism and extremism, those of us who abide by the right of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to exist and prosper, and who long for a brighter future, must continue to engage in dialogue and foster a culture of mutual respect in the diaspora.