The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement: Part I: A Rhetorical Critique of BDS

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement


Howard Adelman


In the next three blogs, I assume the persona of a critic of Israel. The reader can judge whether that persona believes Zionism in general is a settler colonial enterprise, or believes that Israel has expanded its settlements on the West Bank, or because the writer is milquetoast and simply supports the Palestinian cause. I can assure the reader of only one thing – the writer is not an anti-Semite, though very critical of Jews and not just Zionists.  However, this is not a screed against Israelis or Zionists or Jews. It is a screed against my fellow Arabs and Muslims for their pusillanimous and hypocritical approach to the challenge facing them. My voice is not simply one of discontent or of a dissident against the organized Palestinian and Arab establishment. I come from that establishment.

I realize that I am taking on what is literally the weakest link, the soft underbelly of the anti-Israeli movement. But that softness is the real enemy, not Israelis, Zionists or Jews. For it diverts our energies and time into supporting BDS, not simply against Israel, but against Israeli academics who were never even part of the original target of the BDS movement. This is not an irrational screed. I intend to demolish the case for the BDS movement, not because it is not muscular enough, though it is certainly the skinny pasty victim on the beach, but because it is not ethically consistent or coherent.

I ask: upon what criteria – moral principles, efficaciousness of the BDS movement, current international political circumstances or my personal values or goals in life – should I support BDS?  Does or should it matter whether BDS is succeeding or, alternatively, whether it is badly in need of support? How should the existing strategies and tactics of BDS affect my support? This is not simply an exercise in sophistic rhetoric or an effort in verstehen, an empathetic re-enactment to better understand the BDS supporter from the inside as it were. Rather, this is intended to be an exercise in applied ethics where the support of BDS focused on Israeli academia is considered a possible reasonable moral choice for an effort in political activism.

It is a possible choice, but not a reasonable one for any self-respecting Palestinian, Arab, Muslim. I shall try to make clear why BDS is a fraud designed to serve, albeit unintentionally, in strengthening the Zionist program. Hopefully, this analysis will lead to a better understanding of the BDS movement with perhaps some implications for choosing alternative strategies.

This blogs will appear in three installments:

1) A succinct description of BDS and is rhetorical tropes;

2) What BDS- has achieved to date with an analytical critique of its claims for success;

3) A more fundamental moral critique.

Part I: A Rhetorical Critique of BDS

For the record, rather than offering information that is not already widely known, the BDS movement was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations. They represented refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel. No one can accuse the BDS movement of a failure to be deeply rooted in Palestinian society.

Further, it is a non-violent effort. The roots began well before the initial 2005 date. Before even the first intifada broke out in 1987, Faisal Husseini (I said that I come from the establishment) argued that the use of force against the power of Israel backed by the might of America was an exercise in futility, a quixotic tilting at windmills that only invited more loss of territory and more concessions to the Zionists. Instead, the Palestinian movement had to imitate the efforts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and host the Zionists on their own moral petard.

The methods of non-violent resistance had to be employed to enhance pressure on Israel through a program of boycotting Israeli products, just as Blacks in Alabama boycotted the use of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama. The movement had to promote financial disinvestment from Israeli companies by Western interests sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Most importantly, it had to promote sanctions against the Israeli state and bring Israel down on its economic knees just as the West succeeded in forcing Iran through the use of sanctions to give up its military nuclear program. Hence, BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions. These were to be and still are the purported tools to apply non-violent pressure against Israel.

This is why Uncle Faisal cleared out his huge accumulation of Palestinian records going back to the colonial period that he had collected in Orient House. He replaced the material with a huge collection of works on Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s tactics and successes. Though he never openly opposed the intifada, it was not the path he had recommended. The non-violent movement would look to the future and not try to build a case on either the records of the past or past exercises in military futility.

Note the following. The original mandate of BDS did not include boycotting the speeches of Israeli academics who appeared abroad to give talks. Yet much of the activity of the BDS movement on North American and British campuses has been directed towards that end. Secondly, the BDS movement on appearance had nothing to do with denying Israel’s right to exist or its legitimacy. Instead there were purportedly three finite goals, which, when met, would require the movement to retire. They were:

  1. ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands;
  2. recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  3. respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

On the surface, these seem like perfectly clear and even modest demands. But are they? Take the first. If Israel is defined by its opponents as a colonialist and occupying power, then the reference is not only to the West Bank, much of which Israel continues to occupy, while the rest remains under its control through the PLO that has been reduced to a satrap, but must refer to the whole of Israel itself. Just look at the original non-aligned conference in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955, sixty years ago. 29 countries representing one-quarter of the Earth’s surface and one-half of its population endorsed the Palestinian cause and depicted Israel as a colonialist imposition in the Middle East when it was not in occupancy of the West Bank.

Sixty years later in Bandung in April of this year, the rhetoric remained the same. Since the original conference, all countries under colonial occupation have been freed and gained their independence – except Palestine. The original declaration was not about the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, Israeli Zionists were accused of illegally occupying Palestine. This year, the NAM states reiterated that position. For the past 68, not just 48 years, with the support of its main ally, the United States, and some other western countries, such as Britain, Canada, France, Australia, and Germany, support for Israel as an occupying power continues. .

The Bandung non-aligned states are part of the problem, not part of the solution. For they are satisfied with rhetorical expressions of sympathy rather than any systematic program of action. After all, the countries at the Bandung Conference committed themselves to non-violent solutions. In the 10-point Dasala Bandung, the “declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation.” Just read five of the clauses:

Clause 2: Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations

Clause 4: Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself, singly or collectively

Clause 5 (b) Abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other countries

Clause 7: Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country

Clause 8: Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement as well as other peaceful means of the parties own choice, in conformity with the charter of the United Nations. 

Israel, as well as Taiwan, may not have been invited to the conference. The conference may have endorsed Palestinian recovery of their lands. But how could that be achieved? Especially given the record over the last sixty years, if respect was to be given to Israel as a nation with membership in the United Nations entitled to take all measures to defend itself? Not only could force not be threatened against Israel, but the Bandung Conference ruled out even the use of sanctions as a form of pressure. The non-aligned states could reiterate all they want this year that Palestine was not and would not be forgotten, but the actions of these states, with few exceptions, substitute nostalgia and memory for any program of action to deal with Israel as a colonial occupying power of all of Palestine.

The second goal of the BDS movement seems unassailable – recognizing the rights of Arab-Israeli citizens to full equality. But does equality require insisting not only that Arab-Israeli citizens have equal access to jobs and housing – they already have the ballot and considerable representation in the Knesset – but that the symbols of the state and its national anthem represent and give recognition to all of the citizens of the state and not be rooted in Jewish and Zionist motifs? Further, if Israel is by definition an occupying power, what is the meaning of equality of membership in such a state, becoming a quisling and joining with Zionists and Jews in the occupation of their own people’s lands?

The third is the most contentious – the demand for a return of the refugees. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press.) On that matter, the conclusion is very clear in spite of Palestinian and Arab subsequent successes in the revisions to the interpretation of UN Resolution 194, particularly in UN Resolution 338. The resolution itself does not state that the refugees, whether Jewish or Arab (the resolution applies to all those in Palestine who fled or were forced to leave their homes), had to be free to return to their original homes. Clause 11 of the resolution deals with other matters, such as the status and role of the Conciliation Commission, the demilitarization of greater Jerusalem, but also giving due recognition to the role of the recently assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte whose recommendations on the issue of refugees significantly influenced the debates and wording of the relevant clause. Clause 11 states:

Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations.

First, the clause is commendatory not mandatory, requesting Israel to permit return. This is consistent with the predominant view at the time that a state had full power to determine who could be its citizens, a principle accepted by the Bandung Conference. Second, even that request for permission has a condition – it is only applicable to those who having fled commit themselves to live at peace with the state of Israel, that is, to accept permanently the occupation by a colonizing power. Third, as the debates clearly reveal, those states supporting the resolution envisioned settlement in surrounding Arab countries as the permanent solution, an outcome to be supported by compensation paid to those displaced. Fourth, even the compensation clause is restrictive, applicable only to those who made a choice not to return. Those who opted for continuing the fight, by implication, would neither be permitted to return nor given compensation. The resolution was based on a belief in financial bribery – that the refugees could be bought off. There is no doubt that this clause, which was opposed by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen, was not only opposed because it favoured Israel more than the Palestinians, but because those states then considered Israel itself to be illegitimate.

The problem is that if the clause is interpreted, as it was subsequently, as mandating “a right to return,” then it is inconsistent with all other refugee situations where refugees have never been allowed to return in a violent clash between ethnic rivals. Everyone who has studied the matter knows that refugees only have been able to return in such conflicts if they were part of a victorious military force. The right of a state to determine its own members always trumped any consideration of return.

Warehousing refugees in camps for sixty-seven years, feeding them the belief that they can return “by right” instead of letting them understand that the only way they will and can return will be through victory over the Zionist colonizers, is all part of a long term sedative to put the Palestinian cause to sleep while rhetorically and nostalgically celebrating the Palestinian cause as the last and greatest item in the push back against colonialism. The refugees will only return if they are on the side of those who win militarily. So the clause either does not refer to any right even implicitly or it does entail a right, but a right that does not have universal applicability and is only applied to Palestinian refugees and not even all refugees from Palestine. But a right that is not universal is not a right at all.

I will end this critique of BDS as a rhetorical exercise by referring to an article in Embassy. Embassy is a ten-year old electronic publication that reports on Canadian diplomacy, defence, immigration, trade and development. On 26 May 2015, the periodical published an article by Peter Larson entitled, “Israel boycott demands consistent with official Canadian policy” with the subtext, “Yet the public safety minister recently declared that Canada will show ‘zero tolerance’ towards the so-called BDS movement.” It is important to note that Peter Larson is not a government official or someone who retired from the foreign service or even an independent journalist. He is the chair of the National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine, a committee of the National Council on Canada Arab Relations, the main lobby group behind the BDS movement.

Without even getting into the body of the article, a reader has to ask why would a Canadian government minister appear to legally banish a body engaged in promoting a boycott against Israel? On the other hand, why would the writer insist that the position of the BDS movement is perfectly consistent with Canadian policy? The answers to these two questions are not readily found in the article.

There is some clarification with respect to why the Minister might take such a stand that initially appears so counter-intuitive – if the activities were regarded as a ”hate crime.” However, no sooner was this explanation offered than the Canadian government announced in unequivocal terms that BDS was not a target for prosecution because BDS was an exercise in hate. Of course, BDS is no such thing. That is its problem. BDS makes nice. As in the article, BDS insists that the positions it advocates are perfectly consistent with Canadian policy. For example, the article claims that “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” is completely consistent with Canada’s existing policy as stated by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, namely that, “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip)… As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”

The omitted sentence signalled by the dots reads: ”The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories.” When inserted, the next sentence reads with my italics, “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories…” Impermanent control as long as both Israel and the PLO protect Palestinian civil and humanitarian right and until the deal is made trading the settlements for land in the Negev. In reality, the policy endorses creeping colonialism. And that is made clear in the opening paragraph where the world’s current strongest supporter of Israel, Canada, “supports Israel’s right to live in peace with its neighbours within secure boundaries and recognizes Israel’s right to assure its own security… Canada and Israel enjoy a steadfast friendship and strong, growing bilateral relations in many areas based on shared values, including democracy.” The issue is then not one of real principle, but about what Israel can get away with even under international law.

The second BDS demand requires “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” But nowhere in the above statement of Canadian policy is there any reference to the rights of Israeli-Palestinian citizens. All BDS supporters can cite is general principles where Canada boasts that it “has been a consistently strong voice for the protection of human rights and the advancement of democratic values.” But when was the last time, if ever, that Canada voiced any concern for the equal rights of Palestinian Israelis?

What about refugee policy? After all, Canada gavelled the refugee talks in Geneva. Canadian policy on the Palestinian refugees states that, “Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue is central to a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as called for in United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) and United Nations Security Council resolution 242… This solution should respect the rights of the refugees, in accordance with international law.” The problem is that it is perfectly consistent with BDS goals and methods of using rhetorical gestures. For nowhere in that policy does it say that Canada respects the right of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel. All we get is equivocation and a demonstration that diplomacy is the art of creative ambiguity.

When BDS participates in this creative ambiguity while believing in strategies directly at odds with Canadian policy, we simply observe an exercise in obsequious behaviour, the very attitudes that colonialism inculcates in a subject people.

What I have sketched out is an argument that the non-violent rhetoric of the BDS movement is but one small tactic in a long chain of concessions which rhetorically may make one feel good, feel righteous and virtuous, and even promote identification with those oppressed by the strategies of the colonial masters, but is an exercise in rhetoric that is both inherently contradictory and ultimately inefficacious. It contributes, as have all other gestures in this line, to the incremental success of Zionism, an ideology that needs to be defeated on the ground and not just with words

BDS speech is not hate speech. It is an exercise in obsequious love speech, love for the language of its colonial masters. Until BDS throws off the shackles of its linguistic colonialism, it offers no program for the future. If its rhetoric is rooted in a history of failure in spite of the appearance of some successes, has BDS had any significant concrete successes?