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Will BDS become another form of ritualized solidarity?

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

“Friends” of Palestine – the churches, NGOS and the UN – are difficult to categorize as friends – only. If by friends we mean the willingness to sacrifice their status, political and religious connections and wealth – or even a significant portion of it – for Palestinian freedom. Better to call these friends “interested parties.”

Friends of Palestine will go out on the Palestinian limb – up to a point. They’re unwilling to test the strength of the limb as they go further. Instead, they stop and appeal to others – who could be friends of Palestine too. Unfortunately those appealed to have interests that lie elsewhere. So it goes.

The dance that follows is what I call “ritualized solidarity.” It’s better than nothing but not enough.

Is BDS any different? At this point, I believe it is – to some extent. But there are unexpected dangers ahead. As we act, we should also think carefully lest BDS become yet another form of ritualized solidarity. In the end, BDS supporters may have no choice in the matter. Those driving the peace train are much more powerful than movements of dissent, including BDS.

Take this statement by Peter Cohen, an anthropologist and Founder of Humanity for Palestine, from the recently concluded Russell Tribunal  on the crimes of Israel in its latest invasion of Gaza:

Up until now, many of us in the pro-Palestine movement have framed it as a human rights struggle, along the lines of the Civil Rights and anti-Apartheid Movements. The case presented in Brussels with such comprehensiveness and clarity, however, challenges us all to reframe our mission as nothing less than the staunching of a nascent genocide that, if left unchecked, will only express itself in ever-mounting numbers of murdered men, women and children.

One thing that distinguishes this particular crisis from other attacks on civilian populations, such as in Iraq, Syria or Congo is that here the solution is simple: boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS), legal action against states and corporations that collude in these crimes, suspension of arms sales and financial aid, prosecutions in the International Criminal Court – in a word, putting the Israeli government on notice that it can no longer commit these crimes with impunity, but must answer for its actions. Until this is done, we are all complicit.”

Cohen’s statement is strong. Cohen is right. He is also wrong.

Palestine is different than Iraq, Syria and the Congo. I doubt that the International Criminal Court will play more than a minor role, if that, in the future of Israel-Palestine.

Here’s part of my take on the advance that BDS represents. In general, BDS emanates from Palestinians in their struggle for freedom. I qualify BDS’s source because all movements for change come from a variety of sources – as does BDS. Nonetheless, BDS signaled a sea-change in argumentation with the American and Jewish component becoming participants rather than framing the issue. Again, this shift is complicated but the distancing of the Palestinian struggle from American and Jewish handwringing is an advance.

BDS also displaced, correctly I think, Norman Finkelstein’s cult-like status and the invocation of international law as almost a religious rite. Noam Chomsky’s criticism of BDS notwithstanding – since Chomsky is deservedly an iconic figure – BDS largely cleared the field. Gone in its wake, too, and thankfully, is Tikkun’s relentless rear-guard so-called politics of meaning.

The One-State dimension of BDS and the question of Israel as a Jewish state continues to be discussed. There are a variety of stances on these issues within BDS. My own sense is that BDS’ influence isn’t found here, at least in practical application. However, raising these issues moved the discussion further. BDS relegated the Two-State discussion and a Jewishly defined state of Israel to the back burner. If you want to comment on Israel-Palestine in a relevant way today, you have to move beyond both.

Of course, BDS has a cliquish sensibility – as other decades of the justice for Palestine movement have had before them. The usual suspects are invited to speak at conferences – mostly good suspects as it turns out – but a certain orthodoxy is maintained. Certain questions are allowed, others are not. The speakers have to be universalists, in favor of One-State as well; discussion of Jewish particularity from any angle is discouraged or prohibited. At times, activism is promoted over depth. The result – cheerleading.

BDS cleared the decks and started anew – but, this, as the situation of Palestine and Palestinians continues to decline. Indeed, BDS victories have been shadowed by Palestinian decline. Nothing is more striking in this regard than the BDS victory among Presbyterians, soon followed by the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Is BDS only a symbolic palliative that can be grouped together with, for example, the churches in the United States who sit on multi-billions of dollars as their (capitalist?) Gospel birthright, send charity millions for Palestinian relief after Israel’s devastation in Gaza, while compulsively addressing letters supporting President Obama’s symbolic spanking of Prime Minister Netanyahu? No, not in the least.

Regardless of intent and clearing the field – though curiously championing whatever position these churches or the UN happens to take which everyone knows will be ineffective – the danger is that BDS could wind up in the category of ritualized solidarity. Here’s how.

The international consensus is that there should be two states – Israel alongside Palestine. Though the two states are symbolically defined as Israel’s return to the 1967 borders, everyone knows that’s not happening. Not even close. No important political player on the world scene will hold Israel to the 1967 borders. None. What they really mean by two states is some kind of symbolic statehood carved within an extended Israeli occupation that becomes permanent and is no longer described as such.

There are a variety of pressures on Israel to enter into this symbolic Palestinian statehood modality. Most important is political stability in the Middle East, access to oil and alike, shoring up authoritarian dictators or replacing those who have overstepped their bounds. If it becomes essential to the international community for Israel to grant symbolic Palestinian statehood, the possibility exists that this will happen within the next decades. Obviously it is not yet essential since nothing – not one thing – has actually been done to force the issue.

BDS is on the fringes of this discussion but can certainly become a minor factor in the symbolic Two-State discourse and a material factor among others in that trajectory. BDS could actually function in this way because most BDS supporters have little sense of the limits of Palestinian possibility here. For some reason, perhaps because BDS supporters are caught up in the enthusiasm of a new lever of power, they fail to realize that they are effectively part of a broader movement toward a symbolic Palestinian state, an end BDS supporters obviously do not share.

I am not suggesting that there’s a way out of this conundrum – there isn’t.

Nor am I suggesting that BDS should be scrapped – no way.

Full steam ahead – to where?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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5 Responses

  1. Keith on November 3, 2014, 5:37 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “BDS also displaced, correctly I think, Norman Finkelstein’s cult-like status and the invocation of international law as almost a religious rite.”

    Well, I suppose that is one way to describe the purge of dissenting views by certain elements of the BDS leadership. Elements, I might add, that appear to me to have more than a smidgen of tribalism and a power seeking agenda. Folks who play the anti-Semitism card at the drop of a hat.

    • Keith on November 3, 2014, 5:45 pm

      On a related topic, there is a MUST READ analysis by Shimsho Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan relating to oil and war in the Middle East. A couple of quotes followed by a link:

      ” In other words, war and conflict in the region – processes that are customarily blamed for rattling, distorting and undermining the aggregate economy – have served the differential interest of the large oil companies at the expense of leading non‑oil firms.”

      “…with one exception, in 1996‑97, the Petro‑Core never managed to beat the average without there first being an energy conflict in the region.4 In other words, the differential performance of the oil companies depended not on production, but on the most extreme form of sabotage: war.” (Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan)

  2. pabelmont on November 3, 2014, 7:04 pm

    In my view, BDS as a civic enterprise exists to excite public awareness and thereafter political action to get the “S” into “BDS”, that is, nation-state sanctions against Israel.

    As to what such sanctions could be useful for, my idea is expressed at a new paradigm for I/P progress.

  3. JLewisDickerson on November 3, 2014, 8:11 pm

    RE: “I am not suggesting that there’s a way out of this conundrum – there isn’t. Nor am I suggesting that BDS should be scrapped – no way. Full steam ahead – to where?” ~ Marc Ellis

    Beyond the blue horizon
    Waits a beautiful day . . .
    . . . Beyond the blue horizon
    Lies a rising sun

    Michael Nesmith & the First National Band: Beyond the Blue Horizon [VIDEO, 05:58] –

  4. Anon y Mouse on November 3, 2014, 11:40 pm

    > I am not suggesting that there’s a way out of this conundrum – there isn’t.

    > Nor am I suggesting that BDS should be scrapped – no way.

    What are you saying? Anything?

    And why is it worth all those words to problematize something you believe in? Why on earth should the BDS movement — at this moment — have a focus on a mission of self-examination, instead of a focus on effective action?

    > At times, activism is promoted over depth.

    You say that like it is a bad thing.

    The goal is simple: end the occupation. The “depth” and “discussion of Jewish particularity” are wonderful goals — except people are dying and land is being stolen and water sources are being destroyed. Now is the time for action, not nuance.

    College professors are the death of activism. Always critiquing instead of acting.

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