Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BDS Movement's Disingenuous Universalism

My name is Guy Frenkel, a New York-based American-Israeli peace activist, currently working with the Blue White Future movement and Partners for Progressive Israel, as well as a number of other Israeli organizations striving for a two-state solution. All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

In response to M.J. Rosenberg's recent discussion of BDS, I agree wholeheartedly 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 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 a boycott, and learn to differentiate between its different strains; a refusal to patronize settlements and settler-made goods (a tactic valued by many who read this blog), differs from one that targets all areas under Israeli control, which is in turn radically different than what BDS proposes.

However, despite the embrace by some who truly have Israel'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 Barghouti -- 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 (most of which no longer exist), and 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 thoughts, deliberate cruelty towards the 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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Guy,

I'm afraid you are confused on multiple levels:

1) Realizing a right of self-determination does not require having a nation state. Self-determination can be realized in different contexts, only one of which is a nation state.

2) A desire for self-determination via a nation state (again, just one form of self-determination) does not obligatorily trump other people's rights. A desire for Jewish self-determination does not mean therefore that Palestinian rights or Palestinian refugee rights should be abrogated. Who told you that was the case?

3) Refugee right of return under international law does not necessarily mean that 100% of refugees will return to their former homes, though they all should have that option. It is an individual choice whether or not to exercise that right, which cannot be forfeited by some kind governing authority. Refugees have a right to return to their homes, receive compensation or to resettle: http://www.hrw.org/news/2000/12/21/human-rights-watch-urges-attention-future-palestinian-refugees

Because something has been repeated to you over and over does not mean it's correct. The BDS Movement is supporting human rights, and human rights for all, in a completely appropriate manner.

To then claim that somehow this is anti-semitic is completely disingenuous and also self-deceptive Guy. Say you don't like it, but don't be sloppy, lazy and lob false accusations of anti-semitism at people.

You've put yourself in quite a bad spot when you try to claim that everyone having equal rights (which is what BDS is asking for) is somehow discriminatory!

Good luck thinking about this in a broader sense, and remembering the rights of Palestinians as well!



JeffB said...

I have to agree with you. BDS fundamentally rejects the idea that the standards applied to others should apply to Jews and visa versa. There really is very little content to BDS other than hate.

In some sense I can understand this. They are a movement whose common goal is the destruction of Israel, beyond that they differ wildly on what they want to achieve. They are also fundamentally unrealistic about means and ends. They want to achieve incredibly results with meager ends.

And deep down I think they know this. The moment you ask a when question combined with one of their inevitable steps they grow very hesitant.

Nathan Hersh said...

Ted, all of your statements here basically say, "you're wrong," and none of them back that statement up.

Your point about self-determination is false: self-determination is the right of a nation to choose its sovereignty.

Your point about the right of return for Palestinian refugees is correct: their plight must be addressed in accordance with international law, and a "right of return" does not automatically mean the destruction of Israel. But Guy isn't arguing that. He said Palestinian self-determination is not just if it comes at the expense of Israeli self-determination. If the state of Palestine leads to the dismantling of the state of Israel, it is an unjust movement. B.D.S. seeks to undermine the Jewish right to self-determination, not only Israel's occupation (http://www.bdsmovement.net/apartheid-colonisation-occupation). Their call for a right of return for refugees comes from the desire to undo Israel, and it is therefore unjust.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nathan,

It is peculiar that you are agreeing with RoR as defined by international law, but then claiming that Palestinian demand for ROR as guaranteed by international law "comes from a desire to undo Israel, and it is therefore unjust," as opposed to it coming from their desire to realize their rights as guaranteed by international law! The BDS movement statement cites Ror as a Palestinian right under international law, but you've decided that's not what it's really about.

And by the way, do you believe Human Rights Watch is also "unjust" and even anti-semitic as it seems Guy would claim?

When did the BDS Movement say that their goal was to undo Israel? And what is Israel by the way? It is a state with no borders we know (maybe the only one), and it is state where one people's rights are privileged over others, but what constitutes "Israel" that you believe would be undone? Was South Africa "undone" by the ending of Apartheid?

And how did you decide that one people's desire for self-determination in the form of an ethnocratic nation state supercedes another people's right of return as refugees (a right which you've agreed exists)? Can you explain why you think that obviously makes sense?

Regarding people's right to self-determination, there is first of all no agreement as to what constitutes a people. Secondly, beyond the question of what constitutes a people, the concept of self-determination has evolved since the period of decolonization, beyond the very simple definition that you seem to be citing, as noted, for example, here:

"Initially conceived, the right to self-determination belonged to the population, or people, of a fixed territorial entity, specifically peoples oppressed by a colonial power... The right of colonial peoples to external self-determination is well established in international law."

"More recently, it has been postulated that the right to self-determination can be exercised ‘internally' as well. Internal self-determination allows a people broader control over their political, economic, social and cultural development, while stopping short of secession. The development of a new conception of ‘peoples' has evolved with the development of the idea of internal self-determination. In this context, the definition of ‘peoples' is not only limited to the population of a fixed territorial entity but also encompasses indigenous groups and potentially some minorities. Although there is no fully accepted definition of peoples..."

Another point you and Guy are not getting is that if we focus the right of self-determination of people living under colonial rule, ironically it is Palestinians who are essentially living under Israeli colonial rule, and thus their right to self-determination supercedes the proclaimed right of self-determination of the colonizers who wish to maintain colonial privilege.

Again, you've settled yourself into a way of viewing rights in this situation that significantly diverges from how rights are conceived of worldwide. Sadly, there's a lot of unlearning of oft-repeated tropes that needs to take place.


Nathan Hersh said...

Dear Ted,

Let's be clear, and let's not insert unstated ideas into each others' comments.

1) Palestinian ROR is a legitimate claim. The B.D.S. movement, however, calls for ROR in order to dismantle Israel. They've stated their goal to be the undoing of the state of Israel. They consider Israel's "entire legal and political regime" to be void (http://www.bdsmovement.net/apartheid-colonisation-occupation). That is a call for overthrow and revolution, not for self-determination, and it has as much legitimacy as calls from settlers to overthrow the state in favor of theocracy in Greater Israel.

2) The Palestinians living in Israel are not living under colonial rule. They are living with de jure equal rights. The delivery of those rights--where the state often fails--is part of this organization's mission. The Palestinians in the OPT are living under de facto colonial rule, and I believe strongly in their right to self-determination.

3) Once more, the right to self-determination is not the right to destroy an existing state. You seem to see Israel as an idea that needs to be corrected, rather than a state with a population that considers themselves Israeli and represented by the government, not to mention a state that already has recognition from the United Nations.

Before you go on suggesting I'm naive, consider this: I lived there for half of my adult life, I've studied the situation in academic and practical settings, and I've grown into my way of thinking about this conflict by taking into account my expanding knowledge and experience. I leave myself open to new ideas but I'm not convinced by petty insults to my intelligence.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nathan,

You wrote, "They consider Israel's "entire legal and political regime" to be void. That is a call for overthrow and revolution, not for self-determination."

Yours is really an interesting rendering on a two levels at least:

1) Actually, the statement from BNC was this:
"which render unlawful Israel’s entire legal and political regime over the Palestinian people."

You omitted "over the Palestinian people." So the statement did not say Israel's entire regime is illegal, but rather that component which rules over the Palestinian people is.

So your suggestion that this seems to require overthrow of the entire system is not really accurate based on what was written. Still, I would imagine that reversing Israel's legal and political regime that rules over the Palestinian people probably does require something close to the scale of a revolution, or once again, something like what happened in Apartheid South Africa.

2) The BDS movement is essentially asking for Palestinians to have equal rights to Israeli Jews, within a configuration that is unspecified - one or two states. In one state, the way you seem to understand it, Palestinians would not be asking for self-determination in the sense of having an ethno-religious state of their own. So under that scenario, which is indeed one of the possible BDS scenarios, it would not be a call for self-determination as you seem to value it. Self-determination is not in itself a good to be pursued in a vaccuum regardless of other rights and outcomes, though you seem to be placing it on a pedestal. In the one state scenario, Palestinians would be sharing a state with a very considerable Jewish population, but would be doing so in a situation of equal rights and democracy. One could argue that they would be deprioritizing self-determination within an ethnically or religiously based nation state. I am not sure what you see as wrong with that?

On other points:

1) RoR is not simply a legitimate claim, it is actually a right under international law.

2) I am glad you agree that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not have de facto equal rights, but Palestinian citizens in Israel also do not have de jure egual rights. See examples here:

3) A discriminatory state does not have a right to perpetuate discrimination, just because it is a state, and because some people in the state believe that the state's discrimination represents their right to self-determination. Again, apartheid South Africa did have a right to perpetuate a discriminatory regime because white South Africans felt it was their right. Saudi Arabia does not have a right to discriminate against non-Muslims, though some members of society may feel that is their right, etc., etc.

In those cases, is reversing discrimination "destroying an existing state," or rather transforming a state so that it guarantees equal rights for all? The same holds with Israel.

If you believe equal rights means "destroying the state," you can hold that cataclysmic view, of course that's your right.

4) Lastly, likening a call for human rights and equal rights to "calls from settlers to overthrow the state in favor of theocracy in Greater Israel" is not really an argument worth making.



Anonymous said...

Small correction:

This, written in haste: "Again, apartheid South Africa did have a right to perpetuate a discriminatory regime because white South Africans felt it was their right."

was meant to read, "Again, apartheid South Africa did NOT have a right to perpetuate a discriminatory regime because white South Africans felt it was their right."


Edward said...

There must be room for settlement boycott as pursued by PPI and APN. The fact that there are anti-Semites in a movement means they must be opposed, not ipso facto that the whole movement is illegitimate. There has always been Left, as well as Right, anti-Semitism. Labor Zionism and the Bund opposed it, they didn't jettison their socialism. Some BDS is valid and should be pursued.

Ralph Seliger said...

Guy is distinguishing between boycotts as a protest tactic (which PPI supports in relation to the West Bank settlements) and the international BDS movement founded by Omar Barghouti.