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Don’t Be ‘Useful Idiots’ for BDS

By Michael Walzer

This is a followup to “Summer of Defeats for Academic BDS.” This short talk was my contribution to the debate at the Foundations of Political Theory section of the American Political Science Association which defeated a proposal for boycotting Israeli institutions of higher learning: 

         I was glad to hear from a speaker earlier this evening that BDS is a non-violent movement.  I want to assure everyone here that my opposition to BDS is also non-violent.  (Nobody gets medals for this.)  Three short points about and against the substantive arguments for BDS (the argument against BDS on grounds of academic freedom seems obvious to me):

         1) The BDS website claims that the campaign is supported by Palestinian civil society, that a large number of organizations of different sorts have endorsed it. This is a phenomenon without precedent in the history of military occupation–in a civil society subject to foreign rule, a civil society that exists under military occupation, there are many groups, dozens of groups, actively, openly, and freely opposing the occupation. Please take a minute to consider the radical disjunction between this description of Palestinian civil society and the accompanying description of Israeli oppression. 

         2)  BDS seems to fit the classic case of a “front” group whose leaders are committed to a political line that most of its supporters don’t in fact support. At least on the campuses that I know about, in Princeton and in New York, most of the students who support BDS think that they are engaged, as they should be, in a political campaign against the occupation of the West Bank, the expanding settlements, and the siege of Gaza. But the leaders of the BDS movement and its leading ideologists say, sometimes indirectly, sometimes explicitly, that their aim is the destruction (or, as Omar Barghouti writes,  more kindly, the “euthanasia”) of the Jewish state. The occupation for them began in 1948, not 1967; the struggle is against “settler colonialism” and imperialism, and it will only end when Israel no longer exists. In the old days, we used to call the people who joined front groups, “useful idiots.” Please don’t be useful to BDS unless you actually support its political purpose. There are many better ways to oppose the occupation.

         3) The political analyses that support BDS resolutions like this one have one remarkable feature. They describe Israel as the only agent in the Middle East. The politics of the surrounding countries is ignored. The Palestinians are accorded only the status of victims of Israeli oppression; the pathologies of their own politics, the authoritarianism and brutality of both Fatah and Hamas, are never mentioned. For men and women who are professional students of politics, this cannot be a convincing story. So, please, don’t act as if you are convinced. 

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  1. A Case for Discussing BDS at APSA, or: What Really Happened at the Foundations Meeting in DC | MESPI - October 8, 2019

    […] backers “useful idiots” (he has since done us the favor of publishing his remarks online). We would simply note that he directed epithets at us which hardliners hurled for fifty years at […]

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