You can’t save Israel from itself by appropriating BDS

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Last weekend the Washington Post published an article supporting boycott of Israel written by two scholars who identified themselves as lifelong Zionists, Steven Levitsky at Harvard and Glen Weyl formerly of the University of Chicago now at Microsoft. Omar Barghouti had this response to the article, which he allowed us to publish.

A remarkable and very courageous, I must admit, article that helps to shatter some of the important myths and misrepresentations propagated by “soft” Zionists in the US and elsewhere about boycotting Israel.

The authors are self-declared Zionists. Their view, therefore, suffers from the same two ills that afflict all Zionist arguments: selective amnesia and deep-seated, irredeemable racism.

This article below, like almost all Zionist writings, conveniently forgets the Nakba and the fact that the current Zionist state of Israel was criminally built on the ruins of Palestinian society and the ethnic cleansing of more than half of the indigenous Palestinian people.

It also adopts the view that Palestinians, from a typical racist and utilitarian Zionist perspective, do not per se deserve equal human rights to the rest of humans. They should be “given” some rights only when doing so is safely expected to improve Israel’s image and entrench its regime of oppression.

Yet, these two authors take the tough love, or pressure Israel to “save” it, argument to the next level. They make a strong case for a full boycott of Israel, demolishing the typical soft Zionist argument that only a boycott of “the occupation” is allowed and going beyond that takes one — intentionally or not — into “anti-Semitic” territory.

Like all committed — yet apparently confused or questioning — Zionists, the authors of this qualitatively new line of thinking still base their endorsement of an Israel boycott on the “saving Israel from itself” motive but with an interesting and far-reaching twist.

Rational Zionists have for years been advocating for an end to the Israeli occupation of most of the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory — usually skipping East Jerusalem and other integral parts of the OPT — to avoid the ethically “corrupting” effects of the occupation on the otherwise “ethical” Israel and its “soul.” It’s funny, in a painful way, when settler-colonialists speak of a noble soul that they strive to nourish and protect from corruption.

Ethnically cleansing about 800,000 Palestinians and destroying more than 530 of our villages, often deploying massacres and unspeakable horrors, are not considered a blemish on this soul. As the Israeli historian Benny Morris once said, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” While a truism, this argument, I believe, assumes that you are breaking your own eggs, not those you stole from someone else!

Corrupting the Zionist soul aside, the other, often unarticulated but omnipresent Zionist goal, is demographic — getting rid of more than 4 million indigenous Palestinians in order to entrench the Jewish colonial majority in the entire land of historic Palestine.

Here’s how PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, views this argument:

“After failing to slow the spread of BDS, motivated by genuine fear of the demise of Zionism, and with an explicit ‘save apartheid Israel’ agenda, some so-called left-leaning Zionists have recently tried to muddy the waters by suggesting a Zionist-friendly boycott to undermine the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which is attracting an increasing number of younger Jewish activists in the West, especially on college campuses.  BDS is an ethically-consistent rights-based movement that is anchored in international law and universal human rights. As such, BDS rejects and cannot coexist with racism of any type, including Zionism. A ‘Zionist BDS’ is as logical as a ‘racist equality’!

“BDS is not about saving Israel as an apartheid state, giving up some occupied lands that are densely populated by Palestinians to make Israel a more pure apartheid, and to prolong the life of this apartheid for several more years. BDS is all about achieving Palestinian rights, paramount among which is the inalienable right to self determination, by ending Israel’s three-tiered system of colonial and racial oppression: colonialism, occupation and apartheid.”

The fresh and possibly unprecedented line of argumentation offered in this Washington Post article, however, goes as far as justifying hitherto taboo, “extreme” means to achieve the same Zionist end of maintaining a purer apartheid regime. Boycotting Israel as a whole, according to this new Zionist thinking, is the terribly bitter pill that one if obliged to take in order to truly “save” Israel.

A mere boycott of  settlements, the argument implies, cannot suffice, as it is at best too weak to produce the desired level of pressure that can force Israel to end — most of — its 1967 occupation, get rid of millions of undesired “Arabs” who present a demographic threat, and consequently save its settler-colonial “soul.”

This new Zionist thinking clears the waters like never before. It is the goals of BDS, far more than its tactics and strategies, that must be fought by all means. Freedom, equality and justice, which would necessarily entail ending Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, are the ultimate “evil” that Zionists of all shades — and degree of softness — must fight by all means, they argue.

A few years after BDS was launched by the absolute majority of Palestinian parties, unions and networks in 2005, there were some patently arrogant, patronizing soft Zionist attempts, mostly Israeli and American, to present an alternative leadership for BDS to the Palestinian (BNC) leadership, the broadest coalition in Palestinian society. That alternative, more “kosher” leadership was to be more “rational” and “modern” and therefore more open to dropping the second and third demands of the BDS call to limit Palestinian rights to ending the 1967 occupation. That, they argued,  was the most pragmatic — and therefore ethical! — course of action to advocate.

Needless to say, that attempt failed to impress anyone except those in the soon-to-become-extinct ranks of the Zionist “left.”

So a new, smarter, more nuanced Zionist attempt must be made that appropriates some of the ungodly tools of BDS, like boycotting Israel as a whole, to undermine its goals and save Israel from imminent collapse as a system.

The problem with this new attempt, although it is certainly more intelligent, is that it still ignores the huge elephant in the room. Ending the 1967 occupation, even if it included East Jerusalem, at best addresses most of the rights of only 38% of the Palestinian people — those living in the OPT. What of the UN-stipulated rights of the remaining 62% of the Palestinian people (12% are citizens of current Israel and 50% are in exile, who are entitled to their right of return)?

And what of the right of return of more than 40% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba and denied their right to go home?

As I’ve argued before, soft Zionists have a compulsive addiction to advocating for a liberal racist society, to a squared circle, that is, and when they fail to do so, they try new ways rather than give up, thus losing many who see the light on the way. No wonder they are becoming extinct, and young Jewish support for BDS keeps rising.

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Wonderful argument. To all you’ve said I’d add that the Zionist-inspired “save Israel from itself emotional explanation for full-BDS” intended to save Israel as an apartheid colonial racist still-and-forever-ethnically-cleansed entity is not a necessity only for Liberal Zionists (too fuzzy to approve of the post-1967 occupation/settlement/land-grab but still so stern… Read more »

Less-hardy Zio-supremacists like jon s (and RW before him) despise and object to justice, accountability and equality. They prefer a “peace” that: – allows Israel to remain a religion-supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of Palestine; and – absolves Israel of its obligations under international law and of… Read more »

I am not sure whether this argument applies to the Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation as well. Electronic Intifada has a similarly forceful article: The term solidarity — much like co-existence — is so overused in the liberal Zionist discourse as to render it meaningless…. Can every instance of… Read more »

this is probably a tad OT but one of the pacbi statements jumped out at me and reminded me of something: As such, BDS rejects and cannot coexist with racism of any type, including Zionism. i am just wondering how this squares with the recent passage of the ETO racism… Read more »

Just popped in and came across this article. “The fresh and possibly unprecedented line of argumentation offered in this Washington Post article, however, goes as far as justifying hitherto taboo, ‘extreme’ means to achieve the same Zionist end of maintaining a purer apartheid regime.” How can forcing Israel to end… Read more »