Progressive Voices Question BDS: A Compendium

Many activists and scholars who staunchly oppose the Israeli occupation—even some ardent critics of Zionism—are against the BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, including its strictures against “normalization” between Israelis and Palestinians. People on the left who are deciding how best to work for peace, justice and reconciliation for Israelis and Palestinians should be aware of these voices:

The BDS movement

Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study (Professor Emeritus)

There are two lefts engaged today in what we might loosely call Middle Eastern politics. The first: the familiar left, is a left whose members are committed to defend people in trouble (wherever they live), to oppose oppression (wherever it occurs), to promote self-determination (for everybody), to fight for greater equality…The second is a single issue left, focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict and committed to criticize and delegitimize Israel–only Israel…

Let’s imagine a divestment campaign sponsored by the first, the authentic left. How would we recognize it? First, this wouldn’t be the only thing that this left was doing; Israel would not be the only country in the world, or (better) in the Middle East, that it was worrying about. And, second, any decent left would proclaim, from the beginning, its commitment to self-determination for both the Palestinian people and the Jewish people; it would defend the statehood of all the people in the world who need a state:  Tibetans, Kurds, Palestinians–and, yes, the Jews, too. 1

Norman Finkelstein, author of This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza invasion.

We have to be honest, and I loathe the disingenuousness. They [leaders of the BDS movement] don’t want Israel. They think they are being very clever; they call it their three tier: “We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel.” And they think they are very clever, because they know the result of implementing all three is what? You know and I know what’s the result. There’s no Israel!

[They say] “Oh, we’re agnostic about Israel.” You’re not agnostic. You don’t want it.2

Nancy Koppelman, Evergreen State College

The Israel/Palestine conflict is a puzzle that badly needs bold, brave and informed engagement among the parties that disagree. But the BDS movement generally expresses intense compassion for one of the contending parties, while showing spectacular indifference to the other.  Academics who speak for the movement profess the conclusion that there is  a quite simple solution to the conflict—just end the occupation, preferably  today—which is naïve at best and ethically irresponsible at worst when  proferred by intellectuals who ought to know better how international  politics works –“not like a nursery,” as Hannah Arendt once wrote…

BDS principles aim towards an outcome already known to its adherents, based on an analysis of causes they think they need not analyze again. This conclusion-driven approach threatens a wide range of emergent work by Israelis and Palestinians alike who are collaborating, often against terrible  odds, to address the decades-long conflict plaguing their peoples, even as  geography undeniably ties their fates, like their histories, tightly to one  another.3

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), Columbia University

I want…to address the anti-Israeli BDS supporters I know. I want to tell them: You’re acting like inverted tribalists, singling out one tribe to demonize. You’ve surrendered to the tribalist recoil, the tit-for-tat temptation, to tell “the other” to go fuck him- or herself (not to put too fine a point on it). I would say to them what I would say to Benjamin Netanyahu:  Your self-righteousness is short-sighted, futile, and counterproductive. It offers no vision but endless war and slaughter. It offers the hatred that curdles the hater.4

Eric Alterman, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Recent studies have demonstrated that the B.D.S. movement has had no discernible impact on Israel’s economy. And while stories continue to pop up of troublesome student protests and faculty members who refuse to write recommendations for study in Israel, hardly any significant American institution — government, corporate or academic — has actually signed onto the boycott….

. . . Representative [Ilhan] Omar says, “We must support an end of the occupation and seek to achieve a two-state solution.” The movement she supports, however, does not. Nowhere in the movement’s official documents is there any recognition of Israel’s right to exist within in its pre-1967 borders. Mr. McConnell and Mr. McCarthy are not wrong to remind us that “Omar Barghouti, one of the movement’s co-founders, proclaimed in 2013 that ‘no Palestinian — rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian — will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.’”5

Kenneth S. Stern, Director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate

I oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I believe it empowers extremists on both sides, and a particular aspect of it – the push to boycott Israeli academic institutions – is outrageous, and a danger to the academy, where ideas must be weighed on their merits, not dismissed because of a scholar’s nationality. And some of the leaders of BDS, and some who promote it, have employed anti-Semitism. But is BDS by definition anti-Semitic? Clearly not. Some advocate BDS in the hope that it will pressure Israel to act differently. I don’t agree with their approach, but it is not, by definition, anti-Semitic.6


Edward Said (1935-2003), author of Orientalism and The Question of Palestine

Complete anti-normalization is not an effective weapon for the powerless: its symbolic value is low, and its actual effect is passive and negative…I believe we must try to penetrate the Israeli consciousness with everything at our disposal.  Speaking or writing to Israeli audiences breaks their taboo against us.”7

Joel Braunold and Huda Aburaquob, Alliance for Middle East Peace

While the argument for anti-normalization is intellectually coherent, it is ultimately self-defeating. How, for example, will those who seek a full right of return for Palestinian refugees but refuse to allow them to engage with Jewish Israelis who reject the idea, succeed in convincing the Israelis that it is a viable option? How do they expect two conflicting parties to empathize with one another’s narratives when neither side has the opportunity to learn of the other’s struggle on a personal level? And how can they break the victim-perpetuator cycle if they do not seek an end to the victim perpetrator identities? Preventing the conflicting sides from interacting enables anti-normalization activists to define the “other” in their own terms.8

Ghaith al-Omari, former Palestinian Authority negotiator, currently Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

My experiences as a member of the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations…confirmed the necessity of mutual understanding in navigating toward a peace agreement. At first, my view of the Israelis was simplistic. But as I experienced extended dialogue with Israelis, I saw their fears, concerns, hopes, and interests (and yes, hang-ups and dysfunctions) firsthand as they understood them. This mutual dialogue has enriched my personal insight into a conflict that continues to define the Palestinian experience. And while I will never adopt the Zionist narrative—just as I do not expect my Israeli friends to adopt the Palestinian narrative—I now understand that Israelis feel as passionately,  as sincerely, and as genuinely about their collective identity as I do about my own.9

Academic Boycotts

Sari Nusseibah, former President, Al-Quds University

If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals. If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.10

Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, former director of American Studies, Al-Quds University

I’m against the boycott in general. We need more dialogue with the other.  That’s why I believe that you should not have a general boycott against Israel, or a boycott against Israeli universities. If you want to boycott anyone, target those universities that are calling for occupation or are supporting the continuation of the occupation…But don’t target those Israelis and those universities and those institutions which actually are  your partner.

Why is this occupation persisting? Because of all this mistrust. It’s so important to overcome these challenges and build trust between the two people. How can we build trust with boycotts?11


1 Michael Walzer, “The Case Against Divestment at Princeton University,” April 16, 2015.

2 Norman Finkelstein, Interview at Imperial College of London, Feb 9, 2012.

3 Nancy Koppelman, “`When you want to do something, join us!’: The Limits of the Social  Justice Movement in Higher Education,” in The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel,  eds. Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm (MLA Members for Scholars Rights, 2015) pp. 215-216.

4 Todd Gitlin,”How My Father’s Problems With Black’s Mirrors the Left’s Problems  With Jews,” Tablet, October 6, 2014.

5 Eric Alterman, “Does Anyone Take the B.D.S. Movement Seriously?” NY Times, July 29, 2019.

6 Kenneth S. Stern, Times of Israel blog post, “Zionism is not racism – BDS isn’t always anti-Semitism,” Nov. 23, 2020.

7 Edward Said, “Music At the Limits: Three Decades of Essays and Articles on Music,”  (Bloomsbury, 2000) p. 298.

8 Joel Braunold and Huda Abuarquob, “A Bigger Threat Than BDS: Anti normalization,” Haaretz, July 2, 2015.

9Ghaith al-Omari, “The Ills of Anti-Normalization,” The Third Narrative, June 22, 2015 (originally published by Fikra Forum on June 19, 2015).

10 Associated Press, “Palestinian university president comes out against boycott of  Israeli academics,“ in Haaretz, June 17, 2006.

11 Matthew Kalman, “Palestinians Divided Over Boycott of Israeli Universities,“ New  York Times, January 19, 2014.