The American Studies Association’s (ASA) move to boycott Israel sparked a deluge of pro-Israel responses claiming that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement seeks the “destruction” of Israel.
It is a line of attack that conjures up the ghosts of the Holocaust to many Jews. For Israel advocates, destroying Israel would mean destroying Jews’ place in the Middle East. Cary Nelson, one of the most prominent scholarly voices against the academic boycott of Israel, distilled this type of anti-BDS argument in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed published in response to the ASA boycott and the Modern Language Association convention.
“The fundamental goal of the boycott movement is not the peaceful coexistence of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather the elimination of Israel,” he wrote. “One nation called Palestine would rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights.”
But a survey of some of the leading Palestinian supporters of BDS reveals a starkly different vision: that of a shared future in Israel/Palestine, where the rights of everyone are upheld.
“Freedom, justice and equality, the ultimate goals of the BDS movement, would only ‘destroy’ an unjust regime, not harm any humans. BDS categorically opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and consistently advocates for equal rights for all humans,” said Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and a co-founder of the global, Palestinian-led BDS movement for Palestinian rights. “The Zionist paranoia, whether real or an Oscar-winning act, about BDS aiming to ‘remove Jewish Israelis from the region’ is clearly based on myth and a long record of Zionist ethnic cleansing and destruction of Palestinian society. Criminals always fear that their long oppressed victims will resort to the same criminal techniques if they gain power and turn the tables.”
Barghouti pointed to historic examples where former colonizers live with those they colonized, like South Africa and many Latin American countries.
Interviews with BDS advocates show that what the movement takes aim at is Jewish privilege at the expense of the rights of Palestinians. Israel’s existence as a state that institutionalizes Jewish privilege is the edifice the BDS movement wants to destroy. Yet that does not translate into destroying Jewish life in Israel/Palestine. These issues speak to the very nature of Israel and what it will become: a continued site of dispossession and Jewish privilege, or a site where Palestinian human rights are realized and Israeli Jewish claims of exclusive national privilege are rejected.
“The State of Israel is built on the concept of supremacy and privilege… The idea of dismantling that is precisely why it becomes so controversial, because if you can’t have a state that privileges Jewish people, then what does the state become?” Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney who is a supporter of BDS, explained. “For advocates of pluralism and equality, it becomes a better state but for those who consider Jewish privilege a national right, notwithstanding the violence it necessitates, it is an affront.”
Cary Nelson and others imply BDS advocates want an Algeria-style bloody solution, where Israeli Jews are kicked out of their homes and massacred. “This is rhetoric designed deliberately to conjure up images and violence and fear and terror in order to divert from a discussion that really needs to be talked about,” said Ali Abunimah, a prominent BDS advocate and the author of the forthcoming book The Battle For Justice in Palestine.
The BDS movement’s rhetoric points to a South Africa-style resolution. In an interview, Erakat said that “in most colonial models, the decolonization movement equated to the removal of the settler population.” She added that “the idea that [implementing BDS demands] would mean their annihilation speaks to an anxiety of framing Israel as a settler-colonial state, which it is… But I don’t think resolution of the conflict necessitates the removal of the settler from the land. We have the capacity to create new types of nationalities, of conceptions of citizenship, that could contemplate the Jewish citizen as part of this multi-ethnic state.”
Whether the resolution is in one state or two states is not a position the movement has a clear answer for. While some of the leading voices in the West affiliated with BDS are in favor of one-state, many Palestinian organizations on the ground in the Middle East continue to favor two states. Indeed, the majority of those within the BNC – the BDS National Committee which leads the movement – support two states. The bottom line, though, for the movement’s supporters is that their demands–the right of return for refugees; ending the occupation and dismantling the separation wall; and recognizing the equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel–are compatible with Israeli Jewish human rights.
“There is absolutely no question of destroying Jews or of destroying the sense of peoplehood,” Nadia Hijab, the Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network and a supporter of BDS in her personal capacity, told me. “The only question is what political arrangements will be made that will fulfill human rights and international law as regards this conflict… I am personally agnostic on whether this should be in one state or two states. But whatever they are, these political arrangements cannot and must not allow for discrimination based on ethnic and/or religious grounds as Israel does today towards its own Palestinian citizens, as is very well documented, or against Palestinian refugees and exiles.”
Peter Beinart has criticized the BDS movement, writing that its “statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land.” He is right about that. But Abunimah says that Beinart should look at the written work of supporters of the movement, which do reference Israeli Jewish spaces in a post-colonial reality.
“True, it’s not coming from the BDS movement or the Boycott National Committee, because its not their job to do that,” Abunimah noted in an interview. But he also points to, for example, Omar Barghouti, an “intellectual who has written papers on ethical decolonization,” and said that Beinart has not engaged with Palestinians–or Israeli Jews, like those who make up Zochrot–who envision such a future.
In a response to Beinart’s assertion, Barghouti said, “Calling for equality in rights addresses everyone’s rights. It is crucial for the U.S. public, conscientious Jewish Americans included, to think of BDS and the struggle for Palestinian rights out of the Jewish box. This has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism, but has everything to do with a regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid that is today oppressing us and denying our most basic rights. Attempts by ‘soft’ Zionists to claim the mantle of victimness and, as a result, to naggingly demand that the victims of Israel’s oppressive regime must first ensure the preservation of aspects of Israeli apartheid and colonial rule in order for their entitlement to rights to be worthy of consideration are ludicrous and intellectually dishonest, at best.”
Even critics of BDS who are also committed to Palestinian rights, like analyst and author Mouin Rabbani, say that the movement is not bent on violence.
“It is my impression that most of it directly or indirectly calls for a one-state solution. My personal view has always been that this necessarily requires the elimination…of Israel. I think the view that the state can survive dismantling Jewish privilege, or that you can dismantle Jewish privilege without dismantling Israel, is a chimera,” Rabbani wrote in an e-mail. He continued:
“That said, I think the argument that the destruction of Israel will necessarily result in the subjugation, expulsion or extermination of its Jewish population is mere propaganda and not a serious argument that deserves serious engagement. To the best of my knowledge, BDS advocates of a one state solution promote either a binational state (communal equality) or a secular democratic state (individual equality).”
The most alarming BDS demand to Zionists is the right of return for Palestinian refugees kicked out in 1948 and their descendants. Their rhetoric, describing a “flood” of Palestinian refugees, is tinged with racism, a fear of the hordes of Muslims and Arabs coming to displace Jews. Aspects of this fear, though, are legitimate, as BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights acknowledged in a report, co-issued with Zochrot, on practical approaches to refugee return.
“These fears can only abate if Israelis have an understanding of how their lives, properties and privileges will be affected by the repatriation of Palestinian refugees,” the report states. “The project aims to show…that refugee return, as well as being legal and just, can also be achieved in a manner which also takes into account the rights of the existing receiving communities.”