BDS: Yes, No, Maybe, but what is it? – Larry Stillman

By AJDS Executive Committee Member Larry Stillman
For reasons of space this is a summary of a much longer analysis which is appended here.
The Jewish Community Council’s condemnation of the AJDS for alleged sins and crimes brings forth the big question—so just what is BDS?  What the bulls, bullies and others in the Lobby present is something far different from the reality. It is hard at times to know what is fact, impression, or interpretation.  This is what makes it difficult for a number of us at an Executive level to come to a consensus position because we all see the BDS movement differently.
In my opinion, any analysis of the BDS movement inevitably brings to account beliefs (or prejudice) on a whole range of issues, such as Zionism, Israel as the State of the Jews, the Right of Return and so on.  These are views I have written a lot about over the year in places like Galus Australis (search under my name).
BDS is not so much movement or clear platform as a loose and leaderless coalition that has grown from an original statement (the Palestinian BDS National Committee call in 2005 by a host of organisations that has a sort of canonical status), resulting in many different tendencies.  However, because it does not represent a political party’s position, but rather a “call”, it has become scattershot, resulting at times in a political extremism that bears no relation to the conduct of international affairs. This is the position also taken by Norman Finkelstein.
I know that there are many individuals and organisations that do not take on any of the positions I criticise below.   They take a more objective and less emotive human rights approach. They focus on targeting action that is meant make a clear statement about the Occupation, without confusing it with other, often more controversial, complex, and ambiguous agendas.  Such work as far as I am concerned is commendable and should be supported.
By wanting to take on everything, elements in BDS, with a stated agnosticism about the future, key proponents are being disingenuousness and irresponsible and can’t say that it is up to Palestinians to figure out the solution.   On the other hand, the BDS movement also has a dogmatic one-stater stream that as far as I am concerned has little comprehension of inter-communal complexities.
Thus, one only needs to read accounts of the tortuous negotiations that went on in South Africa to realize how little commitment there is to building a mutual coalition for conflict resolution in some elements of the BDS movement.  The refusal or reluctance (your choice) to engage in what might be called “ lobbying in suits” amazes me. Yet from personal experience I know that parliamentarians are desperate for information on alternatives.  This is not the same as sloganeering. The incapacity to sit down with people on the Left who share some but not all your opinions additionally appears to be to be a fundamental strategic mistake.
The hard-line that has developed in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (particularly with regard to the “legitimization” issue or the wish to change the goal posts to 1948 or even before that) is reminiscent of positions of decades ago, rather than an accommodation to practical politics.  It was believed that Zionism would somehow magically wither away.  This is not the real world.  The BDS movement has consequently over-played its hand strategically by obsessively turning on Israel, as distinct from the Occupation, and strong human rights agenda for Israel proper.  It has left itself open for accusations of hypocrisy for not looking at human rights violations by other countries, or ethno or religiocentric constitutions in other states.
There is also a tendency to dogmatism including a global anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist agenda that goes well beyond the problem of Israel.  There is a fetish about not privileging what is seen as the voice of the oppressor (that is Israelis), because admitting that Israel even exists as a state entity, is a concession to its colonial past (while completely downplaying the tragic circumstances which simultaneously made it a haven for Jews). Independent action by Palestinians to redeem their stolen rights is viewed as the sacred and sole foundation on which to solve the problem.  In the particular circumstances of the Israel-Palestine conflict – this cry of injustice and need to prove the legitimacy of one’s existence results in political fantasy, as much as it was in South Africa to believe that the oppressors could be excluded from the solution.
But to say that the BDS movement, because of the anger over what happened to Palestinians is inherently anti-Semitic, is way off the mark.  However, it is true that anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists have aligned themselves, whether they come from Western countries or Islamist causes and the BDS movement suffers from this pollution though when identified, I see that people are expelled from local organisations.  But then we see the same element of racism occurring in Zionist activity such as the settler movement (who don’t get expelled).
Despite these problems, many of the issues that BDS highlights have certainly been part of the left conversation in Israel for decades, and are now reflected in broader political conversations within Israel itself and others abroad: full recognition of the Nakba and its effects, including ethnic cleansing; the effects of Occupation; the creeping culture and institutionalisation of a local form of apartheid or ethno-separatism whether in the territories or Israel;  Israel as a so-called Jewish democratic state or a democratic state of all its people;  the collapse of rule of law and many other matters.  Other controversies such as the Law of Return (Jews)/Right of Return (Palestinians) as a part of the future settlement as well as one state/two states options are also part of the conversation.  Of course, this also puts the whole issue of Israel as Jewish majority state on the table.  And by the way, I consider mutual national apologies as necessary.
But as long as Israeli governments continue down the current path, like it or not, BDS will continue on a strident, discomforting, and at times irrational path, which will impede what I see as a necessary alliance with many Jews who don’t like what Israel has become.