The campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel has often been the subject of ridicule and criticism, but rarely for the right reasons. The most common accusation is that the movement is inherently anti-semitic because it singles out Israel, the only democracy in a region ruled by Arab despots. Needless to say, no sensible person would make the claim that the decision to boycott white rule in South Africa but not the repressive black African regimes on its doorstep was racist. But you can imagine an apologist for apartheid saying exactly that: why single us out, when others are worse? We would know immediately what to think of such an argument, namely that it is a transparent attempt to avoid discussion of your own human rights violations by shifting attention onto the more serious human rights violations of others.
Nonetheless the charge of hypocrisy persists, with critics asking why BDS campaigners do not boycott worse regimes? But since when is it necessary to actively oppose every bigger injustice in order to justify campaigning against smaller ones? The Civil Rights Movement never called for a boycott of the US government for its wars in Indochina, but happily organised boycotts against segregation in the South. But you would of course just be laughed off any news programme and disregarded as a serious commentator for attacking, say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott on these grounds.
With BDS, we have to recognise that the same standards are not going to be applied. The why us and not them attitude holds sway with a lot of people, and is an easy go-to argument for those seeking to discredit BDS. It is therefore unsurprising that a campaign which “calls on consumers not to buy Israeli goods” and to boycott Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions should be smeared as anti-semitic.
But BDS does the Palestinian cause no favours. By boycotting anything and everything Israeli, it provides supporters of Israeli policy with an easy shot against the pro-Palestinian movement: the opportunity to scream anti-semitism and draw the inevitable but false comparisons with the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany. To quote Professor Noam Chomsky, who has been a tireless supporter of Palestinian rights throughout his life, “it is a gift to US and Israeli hardliners” and will be easily used “as a weapon to discredit the entire movement.”
In fact it is quite extraordinary that BDS campaigners did not see this coming. What this reveals is one of two things. Either campaigners failed to predict that a complete boycott would alienate Israelis and Americans who might otherwise be sympathetic to the Palestinians, or they simply did not care what the reaction would be, not seeing the attitudes of the Israeli and American public towards the pro-Palestinian movement and cause as important.
The first option seems unlikely, which leaves us with the very real possibility that BDS campaigners seriously underestimate the importance of raising support for the Palestinians in Israel and the US, the two countries where it matters most. In fact, this has consistently been the main failing of the pro-Palestinian movement. The Palestinians cannot liberate themselves, such is the balance of power between them and the Israelis, which realistically will not change as long as the US maintains its support for Israel. The only way the occupation can come to an end therefore is if the Israeli or American people want it to. So they, naturally, should be the targets of the pro-Palestinian movement.
Convincing Israelis and Americans to oppose the occupation is a difficult task, but not impossible. In the US, polls indicate that three quarters of Americans support applying economic pressure on Israel to implement a two-state solution. And in Israel there is a growing minority who oppose settlements and want to withdraw from the West Bank. These are the very people pro-Palestinian movement should be supporting and mobilising, whilst trying to educate, inform and gain the support of the rest. So if you are serious about helping the Palestinians, this should be your strategy.
BDS are doing the opposite, pursuing a policy which will alienate potential supporters of the Palestinian cause in both countries, and open up the movement to accusations of anti-semitism. Perhaps with some justification, Israelis will see it as proof of the BDS movement’s hatred for the Jewish state, and be driven further towards the warped view that opposition to Israeli policy is indistinguishable from calling for the state’s destruction.
BDS has also been quite divisive within the movement as a whole, attracting criticism from leading pro-Palestinian writers like Norman Finkelstein and Amira Hass. Noam Chomsky has been particularly outspoken in his criticism, remarking that “if people feel like taking steps which we have every reason to believe are going to harm the Palestinians, just join AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and do it straight out.” But Chomsky has also defended a number of BDS campaigns, namely those which target the occupation i.e. boycotting companies which profit from settlement activity.
Some BDS proposals are certainly worth pursuing. Targeted boycotts are far more likely to attract widespread support and therefore apply enough pressure on the US and Israel to actually bring about a change in policy. But the pro-Palestinian movement must recognize that its main strategy needs to be to get the Americans and Israelis on its side. A complete boycott will have the opposite effect, discouraging and preventing discussion between Palestinians and Israelis- which is the only route to ending the occupation- whilst discrediting the pro-Palestinian movement as a whole. As things stand BDS is playing directly into the hands of Israeli expansionists and supporters of the occupation, giving them the edge in the all-important war for public opinion.