This commentary is inspired by “When Your Enemy’s Enemy is Your Enemy,” an article written by the liberal American-Israeli journalist, Gershom Gorenberg, for his usual venue, The American Prospect (March 11, 2016). While his piece does not directly address BDS, it analyzes the anti-Western/anti-Imperialist ideology that often accompanies support for BDS. The summary sentence beneath the title reads: “A defense of Hezbollah by two Israeli Arab parties is a lesson for progressives on the pitfalls of obsolete rhetoric.”
Proponents of this ideology view the West with a mindset that originated with Soviet/Leninist propaganda. While many BDS supporters today may be unaware of these origins, they nonetheless employ this rhetoric. The “Capitalist West,” including Israel, is viewed first and foremost as a colonial oppressor. This worldview is held by most BDS leaders, and many on the academic left as well.
It is important for those of us who are fighting against BDS to understand this, first and foremost because it explains the success of BDS on campus far better than simple anti-Semitism ever could. How else to explain the disproportionately large number of Jewish leftists who support BDS? Calling them “self-hating Jews” is both intellectually lazy and politically counterproductive (with the exception of a few fringe cases that we need not discuss here). While there is no doubt an anti-Semitic undercurrent in parts of the BDS movement, it would not be nearly as successful if there were no legitimate frustration over Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
Supporters of BDS — Jews included — are not necessarily anti-Western either, at least not to start with. Many are simply progressive liberals who do not initially realize that their movement’s tactic of “anti-normalization” crosses a line from liberal advocacy for the oppressed to Bolshevik-style tactics that impose a political litmus test on who is allowed to speak and to whom. The students’ eventual transition from liberal to extremist is helped along by the blurring of these lines in left-wing social media and campus protest culture.
In its most extreme form, anti-Western sentiment can lead people to view violent dictatorships as part of “The Resistance” against Western and Israeli colonialism. Judith Butler, a prominent feminist activist and a member of the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace, claims that both Hamas and Hezbollah are “progressive,” despite the fact that she herself (as both a feminist and a Jew) would not be safe living under the rule of either of them.
This contradiction — demanding that the West and Israel live up to the highest standards of leftwing purity, while at the same time viewing non-Western theocratic and authoritarian movements as “progressive” — only makes sense if one takes opposition to Western (in this case Israeli) military dominance as a prime litmus test for one’s progressive bona fides.
In short, the attitude of many BDS leaders is, in effect, “The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend.” And here we come back to Gorenberg’s article, where he discusses how two predominantly Arab political parties in Israel, Hadash and Balad, operate according to this principle by supporting both Hezbollah and the Assad regime(!) in the name of “anti-colonial resistance.” Gorenberg shows how this line of thinking can be traced back to the Cold War era. It’s a goddamn shame that so many well-meaning progressives on American campuses are being duped into supporting a movement that at its roots is fundamentally opposed to their way of life.
Thus, the fight against BDS must go beyond BDS. It also must be a fight against illiberal and anti-Western ideas in general. Lines must be drawn within the left, between those who are truly committed to liberal ideals, and those who would ally with theocrats and dictators because they feel guilty about the far lesser (but still very real) transgressions committed by Israel and the West.
The following are excerpts from Gorenberg’s article:
. . . [T]he Gulf Cooperation Council—a six-country Arab alliance dominated by Saudi Arabia—officially designated Hezbollah as a terror organization, laying the ground for harsh legal steps against anyone connected with the Lebanese Shi’ite group.
. . . [T]wo political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel [Balad — Arabic for “land” — and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, better known by the Hebrew acronym Hadash] condemned the GCC decision. . . .
. . . Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the move by the Gulf countries and said that, “many Arab states now understand that Israel isn’t their enemy.” As predictably, he lashed out at the Arab parties, asking, “Have you gone nuts?”
Here’s a condensed analysis of these three moves: The GCC decision was pure cynicism. Netanyahu’s response was as cynical but—I’m sorry to say—quite adroit. The statements of the two Arab parties were maladroit at every political level. But they’re also the most interesting, in what they say about the shattering impact of the civil war in Syria on the region, the conundrums of a national minority, and the pitfalls of anti-colonial rhetoric.
. . . For Netanyahu, it’s useful domestically to claim that Israel can now be on good terms with more Arab states while ignoring the Palestinian issue and perpetuating the occupation. . . .
But the fascinating part of this story is the declarations by Hadash and Balad. Both ran in the last election as part of the Joint List, an alliance of four predominately Arab parties. The unity was imposed on them by the Israeli right, which raised the percentage of the national vote a party needed to enter parliament. The Hezbollah fuss, though, demonstrates very clearly that Israel’s Palestinian minority is anything but a political monolith. . . .
. . . [T]here’s a camp that sees the Syrian regime, despite its flaws, as “the last bastion against imperialism and the attempt of the United States to control the region.” This position is particularly strong in Balad, a party of Arab nationalism, and in some parts of Hadash, whose core is the old Israel Communist Party. Hadash is a curious amalgam: Look at it one moment, and it’s dedicated social democrats; listen at another, and it’s yet to recover from Cold War anti-imperialist slogans manufactured in a vanished Moscow.
Actually, the political version of the Syrian Rift actually runs more jaggedly—between parties but also within them, . . .
In fact, the Balad statement did include a snippet of criticism of Hezbollah’s “role in Syria.” The Hadash declaration, issued by a member of the party’s political bureau, did not contain even that much disapproval. But it reportedly did stir angry debate within the party.
. . . [T]here is a historical context to both parties’ declarations. Both presented Hezbollah in the role it claims, the “resistance” to Israel, to imperialism, to colonialism. But this is a combination of nostalgia and ideological rigidity.
. . . As a political category, anti-colonialism was always a useful but blunt instrument. The conflict in Syria shows how useless it is for identifying good guys and bad guys in 2016. The war in Syria is a daily lesson that the oppressed of yesterday can be the war criminals of today.
Hezbollah should be a reminder that for the left, as for the right, your enemies’ enemies are definitely not your friends. Trying to neatly line up all of the righteous oppressed on one side and oppressors on the other leads to political and intellectual absurdity. This is the lesson of the Hezbollah controversy in Israel, but it’s one that needs to be remembered far beyond Israeli or Arab politics.
I'm an independent scholar with an MA in anthropology and experience working as an archaeologist in the Middle East. While I'm ethnically Jewish and was always somewhat interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a result of both my family background and my academic pursuits, the conflict became a passion of mine when the explosion of BDS activism on campus started to directly and negatively impact my ability to do my work. I have since changed my career trajectory, but my desire to end the conflict and pursue peace for both peoples remains. (In addition to clicking below, check out this Web address: http://thirdnarrative.org/bds-does-not-equal-peace-articles/what-israels-nightmare-trajectory-may-mean-on-campus/.)
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