For more than a decade, anti-Israel activists have sought to shoehorn Israel into the nomenclature of apartheid-era South Africa through the use of a tactic named BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions). Apartheid was a universally decried racist system. BDS activists argue that Israel is the second coming of apartheid South Africa and must be treated the same.
BDS activists may claim success, but they are certainly aware that their efforts have failed. No American university has divested from Israel. When a British academic union voted on a boycott of Israeli academics in 2007, more than 400 American university presidents jointly declared that if these Brits insisted on dividing the academic community into two groups – Israelis who should be shunned and everyone else – their U.S. institutions should be counted as Israeli, too.
As University of Miami President Donna Shalala has said, “I know of no American university that would support such a boycott.”
BDS proponents at best can point to isolated, near-meaningless “victories,” such as the recent decision of a socially responsible investment index to remove the Caterpillar Corp. from its list. The BDSers, of course, generally ignore that the decision was based on a variety of factors (including the company’s treatment of its workers), or that many other companies doing business in or with Israel are still listed on the index.
Perhaps their one “victory” was to get a single food co-op in Olympia, Wash., to remove Israeli ice cream cones, crackers, chocolate bars, baby wipes and hand sanitizers from its shelves.
Antics aside, the point of BDS is to change the way Israel is viewed, to focus the debate on whether it is a “pariah” state.
Lately, however, the BDSers seem to be a bit more candid about their motives. While still asserting that Israel is in effect wrong all the time, now they are increasingly comfortable suggesting that Israel should not have been born and this “mistake” should be undone.
Judith Butler, a philosopher and a leading scholar in feminist theory who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, makes this point in her new book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, published by the prestigious Columbia University Press. Butler underscores why BDS proponents do not limit their campaign to products made in the territories.
To do so would “forget the claims of 1948, bury the right of return, [and] also accept forms of unjust majority discrimination within the present borders of Israel,” she says.
In essence, the point of BDS – articulated by Butler and others – is to revert to a world without Israel, irrespective of its policies. That was the theme of the One-State Solution conference last spring at Harvard. That is why many of the pro-BDS materials circulated during the recently failed efforts to pass divestment resolutions at three major conferences of church groups – Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians – distorted Jewish history by ignoring the religious, cultural and physical connection of Jews and Judaism to the land of Israel in order to paint Jews as interlopers in a region where they have no right to be (let alone a right, like other peoples, to national self-determination in their historic homeland).
Anti-Israel Christians recently circulated a document titled “Call to Action: U.S. Response to the Kairos Palestine Document.” The Palestinian document was a one-sided political and theological denunciation of Israel; the U.S. version goes a step further, promoting a belief that Jews as a people do not have “an exclusive or preeminent right to the Holy Land,” but rather a right only “to create a vibrant Jewish culture in historic Palestine.”
So while BDS has yet to have any tangible economic impact on the state of Israel, it continues to be a vehicle through which the questioning of Israel’s basic right to exist is, for some, a “legitimate” issue to be raised without embarrassment. This is much more worrisome than a vote about Caterpillar stock or a co-op refusing to sell Israeli ice cream cones. BDS can change the perception of Israel by creating space for respectable people to have calm debates about the “merits” of a world without a Jewish state.
Fighting BDS, then, is not just about preventing or defeating motions and referenda. It requires paying attention to and challenging the distortions of history and language used by BDS advocates. And it requires reiteration that the two-state solution, in which Jews and Palestinians have a right to national self-expression, is the only path to sustainable peace.