Simply, I don’t know what I think about the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. I believe passionately that the Israeli government must be held to account for its actions (in the same way any government should) but I am not (yet) convinced that boycotting all aspects of Israeli life is the way to bring about change.
As such I have asked two people to put forward different arguments on BDS – one broadly in favour and one broadly opposed. I hope that this exercise will help me, and possibly others, to think about the impact of the BDS campaign.
To start with though, let us be clear about what we mean by BDS – it is a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it ‘complies with international law and Palestinian rights’ (according to Palestinian BDS committee).
This first article is by ‘Sarah AB’ – a blogger and an academic and is based on the premise that the BDS movement is counterproductive to peace.
“Steve suggested that I might write something on why I think boycotts are counterproductive. Although I do think they are (or may be) counterproductive, I don’t think that could be said to be my main reason for opposing them, though it’s a very good one.
The feeling that one’s country is being singled out may well have the unintended consequence of making some Israelis feel more beleaguered and defensive. The more aggressive manifestations of BDS irritate and alienate neutral people outside Israel – and push those who are already inclined to support the country into a more hardline position.
I am though particularly opposed to sporting, cultural and academic boycotts; these seem to target Israel with a demonizing scrutiny not seen in the context of other countries, and shut down the possibilities for conversation, for the exchange of views and ideas.
A very important factor for me is the intersection between BDS and hostility to Israel which seems so extreme as to tip over into antisemitism. I do not mean that all boycotters are driven by conscious or unconscious antisemitism. What I mean is that it does sometimes seem that some boycotters can become so swept up in their cause that they fail to acknowledge antisemitism. One case which I found particularly disturbing concerned the invitation – more precisely the failure to withdraw the invitation – to Bongani Masuku who was invited to address my union after being deemed to have made remarks amounting to hate speech by the SAHRC.
Another thing which I find unwelcome is the way in which shutting down Israeli voices seems almost itself to become the ends, rather than the means. I am thinking of the way in which groups such as Batsheva, the Israeli dance company, have become the focus for zealous opposition, and also about Moty Cristal, who was prevented from speaking at an NHS event just because he was Israeli.
Although I do not boycott Israel in any way myself, I think it’s very important to distinguish between the motives of different people who support BDS. One boycotter for example who has clearly gone to sincere efforts to engage with the dangers of antisemitism is the Green Party’s Peter Cranie. Even those who are most implacably opposed to boycotts, and see them (if not necessarily their promoters) as inherently anti-Semitic, might appreciate his attempts to counter antisemitism and to acknowledge, meaningfully, that it may intersect with opposition to Israel.
By contrast there are others whose support for the Palestinians seems tainted either by antisemitism or just by a chilling disdain for Israelis. A comment that I read just today on Loonwatch struck me as rather telling. ‘Lo’ confesses that ‘my reasons in supporting the one state solution is tainted with spite.’
Moving away from boycotts – and just focusing on pro-Palestinian advocacy more generally – I think this is most effective when it manages to acknowledge and even accommodate a more pro-Israeli perspective. Advocates who do this – and of course Steve is one of these – are far more likely to get those who are more sympathetic to Israel to take what they say seriously. People who use terms such as ‘Zionazi’ (or who simply seem to take pleasure in dipping their toes into the waters of antisemitism before darting back to the sands of pious anti-racism) just make me want to switch off.
Thank you again to Steve for inviting me to write this post. His recent piece on the demonstrations in London struck me partly because of its even-handedness, and partly because it made me reflect that there is something slightly absurd about the way people, often with no connection to the region, feel such a pressing need to take a ‘side’. As Bassam Aramin puts it ‘if we, the fighters, the same people who used to kill one another can sit down and talk, everyone else can.’ I think if Bassam Aramin can look at things from both sides – then surely those of us who are just observers can too.”
A second article on’why BDS is a path to peace’ will be published in the coming days.