Alterman says BDS shares Ahmadinejad’s agenda, and Hezbollah’s too

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Eric Alterman has published an anti-BDS argument in a Nation forum on the question. Addressing BDS proponent Omar Barghouti, Alterman calls for incremental political progress that will engage Israelis and American Jews– and likens Barghouti’s call for the right of return to Ahmadinejad’s threats to Israel:

For this [domestic Israeli] pro-peace majority to become politically empowered, Israel’s citizens must be able to trust that the Palestinians with whom they negotiate are able to enforce the agreements they reach. This is, literally, the only path to genuine Palestinian self-determination. No American president, much less Congress, will ever attempt to force Israel into a peace agreement against its will. Neither would the Europeans, who are actually irrelevant since they lack both the power and the means to do so. Terrorism aside, Palestinians have no credible military option vis-à-vis Israel. Their only hope can come by convincing Jewish Israelis that the risks and benefits of peace outweigh the risks and benefits of continued conflict.

…Barghouti’s conditions demand that Israelis voluntarily forfeit their commitment to their history, their national identity and their understanding of Jewish history.

Were Barghouti to ask American Jews to join him in pressuring Israel to come to its senses and negotiate a secure settlement based on the 1967 lines, with necessary adjustments on both sides and some sort symbolic (and perhaps financial) redress for Palestinians without the “right of return,” he might stand a chance of attracting significant support even among American Jews and within the Israeli peace camp. As his plan now stands, it is of a piece with the programs of Hamas and Hezbollah and with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent call for “the destruction of the Zionist regime” by peaceful means.

What I find most remarkable about Alterman’s argument is how inherently conservative it is in the claim that the BDS strategy defies Israelis’ “history, their national identity and their understanding of Jewish history.” A liberal would not accept such rationalizations in any other situation in which we encountered such a gross imbalance of power. Imagine ceding to the white southerners of the 1960s “their understanding of southern history” as a reason to tolerate Jim Crow. Alterman is referring to fears of another Holocaust, but this dialogue is billed as a conversation among progressives; and I should think it is the progressive’s duty to reimagine social relations and overcome traditional understandings. Also, notice how Alterman seems to honor the constellation of existing powers, American empire and the Israel lobby, which have served to preserve the occupation.

The piece is also surprising for Alterman’s argument that the “democracy deficit” between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Egypt, somehow justifies the status quo. I keep waiting for a sincere statement from Alterman about why he feels a need for a Jewish national homeland when we are doing so well here. That is the heart of his own understanding of Jewish history. 

In the same forum, Lizzy Ratner argues for BDS and offers a far more fluid understanding of Jewish history. She cites a Jewish tradition of supporting boycott when there is injustice, and disputes the claim by Bernard Avishai, who preceded Alterman, that boycott will only put Israelis on the defensive and curb the progressive force of international capital. Again there is the issue, of a progressive adopting a conservative program:

Avishai makes the perplexing claim that in cutting off the salutary spigot of corporate capital, BDS risks alienating the very Jewish Israelis who are most primed to be sympathetic to Palestinians’ plight—namely, its “most educated and cosmopolitan people.” This is an odd formulation for several reasons, the most notable being the most obvious: Since when was morality the privilege of elites? And at what point did corporations become the avant-garde of enlightened behavior?

But there is another problem, which is that the available evidence doesn’t seem to support the theory. During the years that capital has poured into Tel Aviv, nightlife may have boomed but anti-occupation protest has not. More to the point, one of the prime, historic examples of boycott and divestment—the international campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, which inspired BDS—was enormously effective, as both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have argued. (And they should know, to quote Omar Barghouti.)

Read Ratner’s piece for the emphatic description of the facts on the ground today. That is the real argument for BDS, intolerable conditions. If not now, when?

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In the American South, the Jim Crow system of racial segregation had endured since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s, and didn’t end until the 1960’s. In the absence of pressure, it would still exist today. The overthrow of Jim Crow required a revolt by the oppressed African-Americans, and… Read more »

“Alterman calls for incremental political progress that will engage Israelis and American Jews…” [Sigh] Right. As if that hasn’t been tried, along with dialogue groups, staged withdrawals, back channel communications and thousands of other meetings, conferences, proposals and whatever for 45 YEARS!!! In the meantime, there’s a serious risk that… Read more »

/ and I should think it is the progressive’s duty to reimagine social relations and overcome traditional understandings./ Living in a world of fantasy where 6 million Israeli Jews just give up on their country without a fight and welcome RoR is not something that even a “progressive” as you… Read more »

Alterman, like Finkelstein, misreads the BDS movement’s political goals. Here is Barghouti in Huffpo: While several leading BDS activists openly endorse the unitary state solution, most of the members of the coalition leading the movement still subscribe to the two-state solution. This is, however, an irrelevant issue, as the BDS… Read more »

Maybe this is what Phil means by “conservative”, but it’s not just that Alterman approaches the entire issue from the perspective of power; he expects Barghouti and Palestinians in general, to do the same. While demanding greater Palestinian sensitivity to Israeli and Jewish identity and history, Alterman shows complete (and… Read more »