A Divisive Path: Why the BDS Movement Won't End Violence in Israel

In response to "Israel Apartheid Week," a global student campaign that swept across university campuses last month, there has been a great deal of discussion among students and academics concerning Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. As stated in its call to action, the BDS movement seeks to "end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall, recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and respect, protect, and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194." What remains unclear, however, is the mechanism through which the movement plans to translate its numerous declared successes into actual policy change within Israel. Although the BDS movement points to apartheid South Africa as an example of a country that was profoundly influenced by cultural and academic boycott, it is important to realize that a very different reality exists in Israel.

In Israel, policy seems to operate through a negative feedback loop— one in which a culture of fear and volatility feed into ethnic nationalism. In times of war or perceived threat, self-defense rhetoric emerges in the public forum and fear and nationalism become mutually reinforcing. These elements are historical precursors to the election of right-wing parties, which leads to the construction of right-wing coalitions.

Right-wing coalitions tend to attract international criticism because they increase Israeli settlement and demolition activity. Every critical resolution that passes through the United Nations General Assembly, every rocket that flies over the Gaza border into Israel, every call for divestment (by which Israel is made to feel isolated from the democratic polity), feeds into the culture of fear in Israel— one that harbors memories of three thousand years of repression, the Holocaust, recent suicide bombings— and thus perpetuates oppressive policies.

The BDS movement has failed in its attempt to stop Israel’s negative feedback loop by using external pressure. In fact, its efforts may have aggravated the situation. Since the inception of the BDS movement seven years ago, Israel has actually expanded its settlement activity to an unprecedented level. According to Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, approximately 259,988 settlers lived in the West Bank in 2005. That number now exceeds 500,000. In 2011, Palestine's permanent observer to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, stated that "Israeli settlement activities have increased at least 20% over the past year, with construction initiated on 1,850 units and at least 3,500 units under construction…in 142 illegal settlements and so-called 'outposts' in West Bank." Another Israeli organization, Peace Now, reaffirms these statistics, further asserting that Israel "actually exceeded all past years of settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem."

The official BDS website contains a list of musicians who have canceled trips to Israel, universities that have voted in favor of divestment, and corporations that have ended contracts with partners "compliant with apartheid." However, these claimed "successes" have not translated into any type of meaningful policy change in Israel. If anything, the BDS movement has pushed the Israeli public toward an even more right-wing political climate in which Benjamin Netanyahu will likely remain Prime Minister after the next election.

While boycotts against South Africa were not a decisive force until 1984— twenty five years after the anti-apartheid movement began— the tide shifted only when the United States government jumped on the bandwagon, implementing economic sanctions that crippled the South African economy. It is not likely that the BDS movement against Israel will obtain a similarly powerful ally. The United States government has made it clear that it has no intention of breaking up with Israel, even despite international condemnation. It has vetoed resolutions in the United Nations Security Council that were passed almost unanimously in the General Assembly. A unique relationship exists between the United States and Israel—one that did not exist between the United States and South Africa— which is due largely to a vocal Jewish Diaspora and the United States' strategic interests in the Middle East. The United States supports the view that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be solved through unilateralism, an idea that is antithetical to the BDS movement's belief that the conflict will be resolved by simply forcing Israel to change.

The BDS movement's desire to collectively punish all Israelis is problematic because it lumps all Israelis into the category of "occupier" or "oppressor." This ignores and impedes the fierce debate on the topic that is currently occurring within Israeli society. It implicitly denies the existence of Israelis who oppose occupation. It discounts the harrowing experiences of those Israelis who support military policies due to fear or previous trauma. These experiences need to be confronted and addressed by the parties involved— not by movie stars or foreign universities seeking to make a statement. Such external efforts are not a step in the direction of mutual respect or universal justice, nor are they likely to inspire a departure from ethnic nationalism.

Many organizations, such as Justice for Palestine, argue that engaging in dialogue "normalizes" occupation and presents it as a conflict between equals. While it is important to prevent Israel from controlling the narrative, the denial of dialogue is also a denial of legitimate experience, which in itself is a denial of humanity. Every Israeli and every Palestinian has been touched by the conflict, and every one of them has a story that deserves to be heard. Along these lines, it is important to have organizations that bring to light the human rights abuses that have been occurring in Israel and the Palestinian territories for an unacceptably long time.

However, BDS supporters often push their own narrative and justify academic boycott by stating that they are simply "educating" people about the conflict. The chief aim of Israel Apartheid Week, as stated on its official website, is "to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system." Such statements may be well-intentioned, but they are also quite condescending. To dictate truth is to suggest superiority over the experiences of others, and to do so with such disinterest in honest dialogue is unpersuasive and irresponsible.

Perhaps truth is found somewhere between these perspectives; even then, it is still subject to interpretation. When the influential actors in the Israel-Palestine discussion— Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, American Jewry, etc— embrace nuance and learn to respect rather than deny experience, then perhaps some headway can be made in putting an end to the violence through meaningful policy change. However, the BDS movement must also realize that the only way to alter the course of the negative feedback loop is by encouraging internal self-analysis in Israel. This process cannot be forced through alienating tactics like collective punishment.

There is no perfect solution to the conflict. However, it seems unlikely that the BDS movement's tactics will persuade Israel to allow a full right of return to all Palestinian refugees or the United States to pressure Israel into implementing such a policy. Doing so would essentially destroy Israel's existence as a Jewish state, since it would complicate Israel's demographic predicament. For that reason, it is difficult to view the BDS movement as an advocate for mere policy change. While its concern for human rights is genuine and admirable, the BDS movement's policy objective is tantamount to the dismantlement of the Jewish state – a goal that likely would not receive much public support in the United States. In this way, BDS professes to champion human rights while simultaneously denying the equally valid experiences and rights of Israelis.
Self-determination is one such right, and it is held by Israelis and Palestinians alike.

If the BDS movement is truly interested in ending the violence, it should look closely at the two-state solution and try to find a way to make it work. It should partner with pro-Israel, pro-peace groups—groups that seek to change the conversation in Israel— in order to work toward the establishment of a viable Palestinian state that can coexist with Israel next door. We can then focus on helping Israel fix its flawed democracy and achieve its dream of becoming a Jewish and a truly democratic homeland— two ideals that do not have to be incompatible.