The BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement targeting Israel is understandably appealing to people who are frustrated with Israeli policies and want to help end Palestinian suffering. Nothing else seems to be working, so why not shake Israel out of its complacency? Why not pressure it by boycotting its products, preventing interactions with its academic institutions, protesting against performers who want to appear in Israel and other BDS tactics?
Progressives who support human rights and social justice need to do something, don’t we? Yes, but the global BDS movement isn’t the answer.
When we refer to BDS here, we mean the organized, official movement that boycotts and shuns Israeli people and institutions “from the river to the sea,” which means both sides of the “Green Line” that separates Israel from the occupied territories.
Pro-Israel advocates who paint all BDS supporters as antisemites trying to destroy Israel are over-simplifying. Not everyone who joins BDS campaigns wants Israel to disappear. Some just want it to end the occupation and stop discriminating against Arab citizens of Israel.
But some of the BDS movement’s most prominent leaders have publicly called for dismantling Israel. When advocating the Palestinian Right of Return, one BDS leader, Omar Barghouti, asserts that “a return for refugees would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.” That should give pause to left-leaning people who are tempted by BDS but believe the destruction of the democratic Jewish state would be unjust.
What good will it do?
One shortcoming of the BDS movement is that its leaders offer no practical political path, no route from A to B. They rely on a vague dream in which Israelis will someday feel so isolated and under so much pressure that they will demand an end to the occupation and other changes.
Their oft-cited model is the international boycott of South Africa. But Israel has one of the world’s strongest and most stable economies. So even if economic and cultural boycotts and other BDS tactics grow more popular, it would take many years before they had a significant impact on Israelis’ daily lives or changed Israeli policies. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis can afford to wait that long. (For alternatives to BDS, click here.)
Moreover, the South Africa boycott was clearly endorsed by the African National Congress and leaders of the black liberation movement in that country. BDS has no such endorsement by key Palestinian institutions and nationalist leaders, including the internationally acknowledged representatives of the Palestinian people, the PLO.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) supports a boycott of West Bank settlements, but not Israel. As one PA official, Majdi Khaldi, put it, “We are neighbors with Israel, we have agreements with Israel, we recognize Israel, we are not asking anyone to boycott products of Israel.”
Eric Alterman, in a harsh critique of the occupation, notes that BDS “helps perhaps in making the Palestinians feel they have not been entirely forgotten by the rest of the world, but beyond that, it amounts to little more than virtue signaling. (I)n the 18 years of its campaign, no major labor union, no government body, no major global corporation, not even any significant local government has endorsed BDS.”
In the meantime, the movement has strengthened the Israeli right wing and given its leaders talking points that bolster Israelis’ siege mentality. It also undermines Israeli progressives. For example, academic boycotts of Israel have an adverse impact on scholars who include some of the most fierce opponents of the occupation, the settlement enterprise and Arab-Jewish inequality.
Erasing the Green Line
It’s crucial for Israelis to recognize that West Bank settlements are not part of Israel proper and maintaining them violates international law. The BDS movement makes that more difficult.
That’s because, like Israeli right-wingers, BDSers treat Israel and the occupied territories as a single entity. They see everything Israeli as a target for activism and make no distinction between Israelis living in Tel Aviv and settlers in the West Bank. Like the maps that are now used in too many Israeli and Palestinian schools, they are erasing the Green Line.
The American Task Force On Palestine (ATFP) –an Arab-American organization—gives one reason why the erasure of the Green Line by BDS is problematic:
ATFP does not support boycotts of Israel in general, because we support a two-state solution and believe that such boycotts conflate Israel itself with the illegitimate settlements. ATFP believes such a conflation is likely to encourage mainstream Israeli society to identify or feel more solidarity with the settler movement, thereby weakening the constituency for a two-state solution.
To fight against this erasure, many pro-Israel progressives who oppose BDS support a targeted economic boycott of West Bank settlements. Unlike the BDS movement, they make a clear distinction between Israel proper and the territories occupied as a result of the Six Day War in June 1967, because they want to end the occupation, ensure the survival of the Jewish state, and keep alive the possibility of a two-state solution.
The problem with anti-normalization
Right now, many Jews in Israel, Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories are trying to solve common problems and build the kind of trust that is needed to build a better future. In 2020, Congress wisely voted to fund such initiatives with over $250 million in the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. But the BDS movement shuns these “people to people” projects because a key part of its strategy is “anti-normalization,” which opposes joint Arab-Jewish initiatives except those that are explicitly devoted to resistance or protest.
That means it opposes contact with the Israeli-Palestinian organization Comet ME, which works to bring sustainable energy solutions and clean water to Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills in the occupied territories. It wants no part of ECOPeace, which describes itself as a group of “Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists working together to protect our water — and our future,” and to stave off the shared dangers of climate change.
The anti-normalizers object to Hand in Hand, whose declared mission is “to build partnership and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel through our growing network of integrated Jewish-Arab schools and communities throughout the country.”
You can find many other examples of people-to-people initiatives that the BDS movement denounces in the Alliance for Middle East Peace. You’ll be undermining their important work if you sign a petition or vote yes on an organizational initiative that endorses the BDS movement.
BDSers seem to believe there is a contradiction between supporting many of these joint Jewish-Arab initiatives and strenuous opposition to the occupation. We couldn’t disagree more strongly, and think that both strategies should be pursued simultaneously.
“Well,” you might be thinking, “if I don’t support the BDS movement, what else, in addition to a targeted boycott of West Bank settlements, can I do to help end the occupation and promote human rights and justice in Israel-Palestine?” We offer some suggestions here.