A Performance Critique of BDS – Part II

A Performance Critique of BDS – Part II

by

Howard Adelman

                                                                                                           

 “More than any other tactic of the Palestinian liberation movement, the BDS campaign has succeeded in creating a global outpouring of support for Palestinian rights and placed Israel’s violations of them under international scrutiny like never before.” This is the boast that appears on the BDS website in an essay written by Sherry Wolf entitled, “What’s behind the rise of BDS?” The answer presumably is a record of success. How is success measured? By the following:

  • moving the issue of Palestinian rights from the margins into mainstream discourse
  • instead of a discussion of obscure territorial border issues and competing narratives, debate has now opened up in the media, in corporate board rooms and in academia

For the moment, let’s presume the truth of both claims. How then do such “successes” relate to the goal of ending the occupation and colonizing of all Arab lands? Wolf makes no effort to draw any connection. Like magic, a campaign for the rights of Palestinians will lead inevitably to the roll back of the armies of the colonizers and the surrender of all land seized back to the Palestinians. One need only utter the connection to recognize how absurd and preposterous any claim for such a connection using the means that BDS employs. Instead of an argument and evidence, we get repetition upon repetition of the three aims of the BDS movement as if they were a mantra rather than realizable political objectives.

The anti apartheid movement against South Africa is usually offered as the forerunner of the BDS campaign. But everyone knows the context, the histories and the global situation were radically different. The Boers, for example, had lived in South Africa for centuries unlike the Zionists who had really been in Palestine for less than half a century before they gained control initially of just over half the land and then in the 1948 war increased that to over 70%. The Zionists became, through the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the majority in their own state. In contrast, the Boers never achieved majority status in their areas of occupation, even if the English white population was added to their own numbers. In ethnic, religious and racial conflicts, minorities have a choice – rule over the rest or be ruled, but do not pretend that, as a minority, you can rule as a minority for very long without external support and/or internal ruthlessness.

Further, the Jewish Zionists were much cleverer than the advocates of apartheid. Apartheid was not practiced in Israel primarily through the rule of law and the denial of the right to vote as it was in South Africa and in the Southern United States. The exclusively Jewish Israeli government let Palestinians in Israel become full citizens and cast ballots and practiced any apartheid through informal rather than legally coercive measures. The BDS charges the Zionists with racism and preaching racial superiority with no evidence to support such a claim. The Zionists are much cleverer than that. They practice the superiority of their power, not the superiority of their blood. The latter offends the world as it did for the advocates of apartheid in South Africa, Alabama and most of the Deep South in the USA. The superiority of power, in contrast, is often widely admired even when the group controlling and wielding the power is repulsive. More importantly, the only real way to challenge power is with countervailing forces that are stronger, more committed and have the vision of the long run rather than pandering to liberal doctrines of rights to get mushy liberals on one’s side.

In putting forth this liberal non-violent mode of fighting what is really a hundred years war, the BDS movement distorts and deforms Palestinian history. The militant Palestinian movement never envisioned winning its battle against the hostile forces arraigned against it “through the mobilization of Palestinians alone.” Quite the contrary. Initially, the Palestinian leadership placed too much reliance on the efforts of others. And then when it took its destiny into its own hands, instead of raising the morale of its partners so they could enter the fray with enthusiasm and an all-out effort, the PLO ended up getting into one conflict after another with them even as the PLO agreed to non-interference in those Arab states in return for financial support, something which BDS acknowledges. Instead of mobilizing other Arabs and Muslims to fight on their side, the Palestinian leadership counted on governments that were already insecure in their own power without taking on Israel and its Western backers. The Palestinian leadership, indeed, did not work alone, but got in bed like prostitutes with regimes without deep roots in the will of the people and without any stamina for a long and necessarily sacrificial struggle.

The problem was not that the militants went their own way, but that they went the wrong way, pussyfooting around the central issues rather than directly confronting them and rallying the resources and the will to accomplish the real goals. The BDS movement opts for non-violence in its actions, but violence in its goals and aspirations. The position is inherently contradictory and doomed to be an even greater failure than the weak militancy of the PLO leadership even as BDS celebrates its rare pyrrhic victories.

Look at the contrast between reality and the following BDS claims:

  1. Success as evidenced by the admission of Israeli and Zionist leaders that BDS is “delegitimizing” Israel and threatens Israel’s authority and prestige;
  2. The shift in American public opinion so that a majority now view Israel unfavourably;
  3. Success because of Israel’s own brutal actions in activities such as Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) and in Operation Protective Edge (2014) in Gaza, activities which BDS puts on display and amplifies.

In other words, BDS admits that its successes have largely depended on Israel and Zionists shooting themselves in the foot rather than any role BDS plays except magnifying and publicizing Israel’s self-inflicted wounds.

But what is the reality? For purposes of space, I will concentrate only on the claimed successes with respect to U.S. attitudes and support and set aside both an examination of successes outside America and whether BDS has taken sufficient advantage of Israel shooting itself in the foot.

I begin with the first claim, that Israeli and Zionist leaders have recognized BDS as a central threat. Wolf wrote, “At the 2014 conference of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), unquestionably the most influential pro-Israel group in the United States, speakers from Secretary of State John Kerry to Netanyahu felt the urgency to deride BDS. In his keynote address to AIPAC, Netanyahu mentioned BDS no fewer than eighteen times. To rousing cheers, Netanyahu called on Zionists to ‘fight back’ against boycott advocates, ‘to delegitimize the delegitimizers.’ [16] Many BDS activists rightly took this to be a form of distorted respect from an enemy that previously ignored the movement’s existence.”

How revealing! Success is marked by recognition of one’s existence, not by the degree to which specific goals have been achieved within an overall larger strategy. It is as if the black flies of northern Ontario announced that they were winning the war against human encroachment on nature in general and their habitat in particular because they are such an irritant to the increasing number of humans invading their territory. The BDS movement has shown it can be a bothersome irritant. The BDS has shown that it can become a focus of attention by the current Zionist leadership that continues to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot. Swatting the back of its neck may be perceived as a form of shooting oneself in the foot, but it can also be recognized as a minor distraction, not only for the Zionists but for the goals of those who really see Zionism as the imperialist colonizer. The real question is whether serving as a gnat will stop the continuing invasion. Claiming that Israel has become a global pariah does not make it so.

Let us look hard at claims of enhanced support for the Palestinians and the branding of Israel as a pariah. I neither have the space nor time to undertake a world survey, but an examination of shifting attitudes in the key battleground for the BDS movement, the United States, offers very little encouragement and belies the BDS claim that Israel has become a pariah. A swarm of mosquitoes or an attack of black flies are certainly bothersome, but they cause little change in the actual forward march of the colonizer and occupier.

Note the following:

  1. U.S. military aid to Israel has not decreased but has steadily increased beginning with the establishment of the PLO until it more or less flat-lined and achieved a plateau over the last thirty years:
  2. The U.S. Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, remain unwavering in support for Israel even when the Prime Minister of Israel challenges the President of the U.S. not simply on U.S. soil, but in the U.S. Congress.[1]
  3. There was absolutely NO significant media coverage that Congress continued to vote support for shipping sophisticated weaponry to Israel, even if some held their noses at the extent of the destruction in Gaza.
  4. In various surveys, although there is a vocal and significant minority opposed to such military aid, there is a clear majority in America who support supplying Israel with the same level of weaponry into the future; that support has not declined because of Israel’s actions in Gaza; further, in spite of the revelations of Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has supplied Israel with covert support by sharing intelligence, and there is little sign of any significant objection.
  5. Almost 40% of Americans continue to support a two state solution, a number unchanged in spite of the Gaza wars between 2008 and 2014.
  6. Also unchanged is the number – estimated at 18% – who support a one state solution with the Zionists in control.
  7. What has changed as the prospect of a two state solutions recedes is the number supporting Israel evolving into a bi-national state with Arabs having equal citizenship if, and for many who take this position, only if the two state solution really is dead.
  8. Since the PLO has shifted tactics and set aside the bilateral pursuit of peace with the U.S. as a mediator, at least while Netanyahu and his ilk hold power, and has shifted to the international diplomatic route more in line with the BDS approach, only 25% of Americans want the U.S. to support such an effort.
  9. On sanctions, in spite of a majority of Americans opposing expansion of Israeli settlements, most oppose imposing sanctions; BDS efforts have not seemed to have been proven effective in getting support for sanctions aligned with opposition to settlements.
  10. More telling than any of the above polls perhaps is the fact that only 14% of Americans want the U.S. to be more supportive of Palestine while 55%, in spite of opposition to settlements, want the U.S. to lean towards the Israeli side.

None of this data supports the self-advertisement that BDS has had a significant effect on American attitudes let alone policy with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite the reverse. Given the ambiguous and equivocal position of BDS on whether BDS favours a one state or a two-state solution, and certainly around the issue of whether Palestinians should have the defining power in such a state, BDS can be accused of retarding rather than enhancing this development in consciousness.

However there is one cogent argument in support of BDS in spite of any significant lack of progress to date. 31% of Americans rank human rights concerns as their highest priority compared to real politic and the defence of American interests (24%) or 14% because of Israeli interests. However, of those 31%, a majority believe that Israel is a stronger defender of human rights than the Palestinians. This indicates that making an appeal on the basis of human rights might seem the most efficacious route to some success since rights are so central to many Americans’ concerns, but in doing so, perhaps the spotlight reveals more about the Palestinians than the Zionists. On the other hand, rallying around the theme of human rights does allow those most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and those most supportive of international action to recognize a Palestinian state, to coalesce. But is that success consequential, or does it merely make Palestinians feel good without any accomplishments on the ground?

This is the telling poll about attitudes. The most recent Pew poll continued to show that Americans, in spite of Israeli ruthless behaviour, continue to support Israel over Palestinians by a wide margin. BDS has not had any significant effect on this even when the poll was conducted immediately after the last cessation of fighting in Gaza in 2014. Even after the havoc Israel inflicted on Gaza, 34% of Americans strongly sympathize and 32% somewhat sympathize with Israel, while the equivalent figures for the Palestinian cause is 11% and 35%. More telling, the sympathy for the Palestinians is not with their cause but their condition as victims, while the sympathy for Israel is for their cause. Pursuing BDS goals is a self-defeating exercise because, in order to earn more sympathy for the Palestinians, they have to continue to be victims, not victors. Further, in spite of all their suffering, almost half of Americans still have little or no sympathy for the Palestinians, while those with little or no sympathy for the Israelis is half that figure.

This points to the real flaw in the BDS philosophical approach and efforts. They are totally marginal in effecting change. To the extent they do succeed, they may boomerang back against the Palestinians even more. Finally, and most importantly, such efforts undermine the real struggle, the struggle between two national groups for dominance. Once that is surrendered, the Zionists are bound to win because, disastrous as it is, they have a better track record in the human rights field than the Palestinians. Further, they are bound to win because they are stronger. The only way Palestinians will win is if they understand that they must be stronger, more dedicated and more committed to winning the struggle. BDS is really a route to surrender while engaging in a rhetorical superego trip. The reality is that wars – even the wars in South Africa and the American South – were won because of who had the power, and not because of an appeal to human rights, however important human rights were as a rallying cry for the majority to overthrow the power of a minority.

What has changed? Support for a two-state solution has declined as the vision of a two states living side by side in peace has receded as a possibility. BDS supporters who deep down do not believe in victory for the Palestinian cause, but espouse a week-kneed vision of a secular society of individuals with equal rights, whether they have Jewish or non-Jewish backgrounds, a utopian dream if there ever was one, would appear to have gained ground because of this shift. The problem, however, is that the support for a Palestine dominated by the Zionists has increased even more. As the two-state solution recedes, the issue is not whether a utopian paradise of individual rights will rise out of the ashes of a doomed pursuit, but which community will dominate in the resultant power struggle. Does the BDS movement offer any indication that the Palestinians will emerge on top as they pursue everyone ostensibly living at precisely the same level of rights and benefits? Quite the opposite. Both domestically and certainly in the U.S., understanding for a hegemonic Zionist enterprise has crept to the forefront both in Israel and the U.S.

Demonizing the Zionists is totally insufficient. In fact, the greater the demonization, the more the morale of the Palestinians will suffer as their dream of recovering their lands and their historic place in the world recedes. What is required is not demonization of the Zionists but their total defeat, and the BDS platform offers no route or prospect to achieving such a goal. As the prospect of a two-state solution recedes, the benefits will not go to the mushy liberals who build a program based on human rights. They did not emerge victorious in the recent Arab spring and have failed to learn or apply any lessons to their inconsequential efforts when fighting the Zionist colonizers and occupiers. The benefit will go to the hard Israeli right who change hirsute for sheep clothing at the bat of an eye and much faster and more successfully that Jacob did in robbing Esau of his birthright.

As long as the BDS movement propagates the illusion of a so-called just outcome in which everyone can live in a polity that guarantees everyone human rights, then the Zionists cannot and will not be defeated. They will be irritated. They will scratch away at the bites of no-see-ums at their hairline. But the Zionist entity will not surrender as the minority apartheid regime in Rhodesia and South Africa and the American South were forced to do. Standing up to Israel’s human rights violations and the collaborators with the Zionist enterprise of colonization and occupation is not and can never be just a human rights struggle. It has to be a struggle for the Palestinians as Palestinians, for the Arabs as Arabs, for Muslims as Muslims, against an enemy that has to be destroyed. Otherwise, BDS is just a proponent of a long series of illusions that have led to one setback after another for the Palestinians. If the Zionists are inherently colonizers, if they are inherently occupiers, then joining forces with bleeding heart liberal Jews on a human rights platform can only be self-defeating. Viewing themselves as the civil rights movement of the twenty-first century may appease sensitivities, but will not bring victory over the Zionists any closer. Cloaking oneself in the mantle of universal rights will no more disguise and hide the real battle ground than the Zionists wearing the magician’s cloak of a two-state solution.

But the supporters of the BDS movement know this. They are not total fools. They know they lack the domestic power to bring the Zionist entity to its knees. That is why they, like the PLO, have taken the international route. In their own words, “Though BDS is a magnificent tactic for winning sympathy and drawing activists into solidarity with Palestinians, even landing financial and ideological blows against Israel, it is ultimately a struggle for reforms within capitalism—an exploitative system that is part of an imperial order.” In other words, the real ultimate goal is the defeat of capitalism of which Zionist Israel is just an early and easier target. And all of this in the face of China as a rising communist-capitalist power and the virtual decimation of the communist utopian enterprise everywhere.

What about the claims for specific accomplishments? On the sanctions front, the score is zero. Does this suggest to the BDS proponents that their utopian vision in which they hypocritically espouse Palestinian self-determination while denouncing Jewish self-determination all in the guise of the universality of human rights has little in common with the civil rights struggle in the American south or the struggle within South Africa to overthrow apartheid? And when they shift gears and insist that they are true liberals opposed to prioritizing either form of national self-determination, it is clear that they cannot make up their minds whether they are the avant-garde of socialism, of universal liberalism or of support for the Palestinians as a movement for self-determination in the face of a powerful colonizing occupier. The confusions and contradictions only muddy the waters even as they use this creative ambiguity of traditional diplomacy to gain more support.

On the divestment front, BDS calls for withdrawal of investments in stocks and bonds in corporations deemed to be complicit in support of violations of Palestinian human rights. Again, even on this inconsequential front with an effect that is barely noticeable, the reality is that the BDSers are really not aiming at victory, but consciousness raising, about using the divestment campaign to help blacken the image of Israel. My argument is simple. To the extent the BDS campaign has succeeded, the success has been infinitely miniscule. Secondly, the backlash has been far more powerful than any small benefit. Third, part of that backlash entails revealing the hypocrisy of a movement that campaigns on human rights as a universal position but singularly focuses on Israel which even its most ardent enemies have to admit is far from the most heinous criminal on this front, quite aside from the fact that in a power struggle between one group and another for supremacy, human rights, however important, become relatively a side issue. Finally, BDSers have a record of flouting victories when the actions lauded have often had little if anything to do with supporting the aims of BDS.

Take the Hampshire College issue where BDS claimed its first victory in 2009 in the soft underbelly of its campaign for divestment. BDSers claimed that, as a direct consequence of their campaign, Hampshire College regents voted to terminate investments in companies associated with Israel and the exploitation of Palestinians.  What are the facts? Hampshire College is one of the myriad of small liberal colleges that populate the American landscape with a total enrolment of only 1,400 students boasting small classes, small faculty to student ratios, and an impressive record of graduates going on to complete graduate degrees. It is far from the most prestigious of such colleges, but it is no slouch either. Hampshire is among the better of the myriad of small liberal colleges in the United States.

The campaign for divestment on campus was begun by a group which, consistent with the BDS position, viewed all of Palestine as occupied and colonized. Though the Board denied it was responding to pressure, the Board voted to divest its $40 million endowment of any investments in 200 companies including six pushed by BDS on campus, e.g. General Electric, ITT and Motorola. The President of the college at the time, Ralph Hexter, admitted the college had initiated its actions in response to student pressure, but that the action taken had nothing to do with any opposition to Israel. This aroused the ire of Alan Dershowitz, whose son went to Hampshire College. Within two years, Ralph Hexter was no longer president; he was replaced in 2011 by Jonathan Lash, an environmental expert who for six years in the nineties chaired the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

Hexter was forced to leave after only three years even though he was an Ivy-league educated classicist, an openly married gay scholar with an excellent record as a fund raiser. What he did not know how to do was manage a student body that was radically left, whether the issue was security cameras in parking lots, ostensibly to protect vulnerable students from sexual assault but interpreted as invasions of privacy, or the issue of his alleged support for institutional racism (Hampshire College in overwhelmingly white Amherst Massachusetts hosted a student body in which 25% were members of visible minorities.), and over the attempt to move administrative offices to a more central convenient location. The cause for “firing” was not just over the blow-up over the divestment issue. What the whole sorry episode indicated was a record of a significantly-sized but a minority of a supposedly radical group of students incapable of discriminating between issues of security cameras, world political crises or the location of administrative offices. All these issues demanded the same fiery inflammatory speeches and the belief that outrageous speech is equivalent to radical action.

The policy that the College Board approved on 7 February 2009 was a decision to divest investments in its small endowment from 200 companies perceived as in breach of the college’s standard of social responsibility. No reference at all was made to Israel. The list included Caterpillar, Terex, and United Technologies as well as the three companies previously mentioned on the list targeted by the Students for Justice in Palestine.

All the protests and press releases could not overcome the reality that the Board’s actions were perceived as bending before pressure to a radical group of students with an anti-Israel agenda. The reality was that these were ersatz radicals, satisfied with the most ephemeral of victories with trivial or no consequences except the backlash that made almost all other colleges fearful of following the Hampshire College precedent. Further, the college insisted that the divestment was based on the fact that these companies were ostensibly guilty of “unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings.” The press release was unequivocal: “Israel was not the cause for divestment from the State Street Fund.” Hampshire College insisted, in fact, that the college “had refused to divest from Israel.” Perception, however, won over substance. In the long run, both the College and the BDS movement suffered enormously from the negative fallout and the misrepresentation of what had taken place.

BDS had its fifteen seconds in the divestment limelight. Drugged with the illusion of success, by 2014 BDS claimed additional breakthroughs at Swarthmore and Vassar, two other even more esteemed liberal college campuses of privilege and detachment from the harsh realities of life. Those students, however, were not satisfied with a picayune pinprick; they went after the pension giant TIAA-CREF in spite of a past record where BDS claimed a victory over an action by the fund that had nothing to do with the BDS campaign. Victories in student votes of a small minority of students who pack a meeting proved inconsequential. This was true of even causes that have much broader and deeper support among the student body, the effort of Mountain Justice to get the Swarthmore College to divest in firms involved with fossil fuels. This was the response of Gil Kemp, Chair of the College Board of Management, in an open letter on divestment dated 13 September 2013 that is even more applicable to the Palestinian issue than the environmental one.

After firmly proclaiming support for the climate change doctrine and the fears of the negative consequences, and the support for alternative energy sources, after lauding its own action plans to deal with the issue by the college, in response to the effort of Mountain Justice to eliminate fossil fuel shares from their portfolios, the College Board rejected the request on consequentialist grounds that costs would far outweigh any benefits posing “an unacceptable risk to the College’s finances” and an estimated loss of $10-15 million in income annually for the fund. Nor would divestment have any significant impact on the “behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels.” Even as a “a symbolic act designed to mobilize public opinion against fossil fuels,” the efficacy of such a move was denied. “Divestment’s potential success as a moral response is limited – if not completely negated – so long as its advocates continue to turn on the lights, drive cars, and purchase manufactured goods.” Is this not far truer of efforts to enter into the hazardous fray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the support is far less and the complexities far greater?

The divestment strategy may have had a few minor and meaningless empty victories, but the negative repercussions have been far greater than any accomplishments. What about the sanctions campaign?

I will discuss that effort in my blog on Sunday morning when I focus more intently on the boycott efforts, the campus campaign and wrestle in greater detail with the ethical issues.

[1] For these and subsequent polling results, I have relied primarily on the surveys of the Brookings Institute in cooperation with the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and its polls of American public attitudes to various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (December 2014).

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