First published in Mondoweiss https://mondoweiss.net/2019/08/response-altermans-seriously/
Eric Alterman’s July 29 New York Times opinion piece asks: “Does Anyone Take the B.D.S. Movement Seriously?” Alterman argues that the BDS campaign (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is all symbolism without any real substance or economic impact and that support for BDS has become an empty progressive catch phrase. I feel compelled to answer his question because Alterman and I are looking at the same information and coming to opposite conclusions.
I will start with his flippant remark: “with each iteration of the B.D.S. ‘debate,’ the underlying issues seem to recede into obscurity.” He focuses on how BDS is used as a political tool in our increasingly dysfunctional Congress, rather than on the realities in Israel/Palestine.
Just to be clear, this is not about us. The “underlying issues” include the increasingly racist Israeli government that has made it unambiguously obvious that maintaining Jewish exceptionalism and privilege is a higher state value than the democracy and equality of all its citizens that is so eloquently stated in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The “underlying issues” include a more than fifty-year-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the exploding Jewish settler growth in the West Bank, the catastrophic siege in Gaza that has brought the Strip to a humanitarian catastrophe, the brutal expulsions and home demolitions that are taking place in East Jerusalem as we speak. The “underlying issues” include millions of Palestinian refugees living without recognition of their internationally guaranteed rights and without a clear path to a viable future.
These issues have not receded anywhere and in fact are more obvious and more internationally understood than ever before thanks to YouTube, blogs, social media, human rights groups, and eyewitness reports that are readily available to anyone who wants to know.
Yes, the Israeli economy is humming, but as the Israeli government allies itself with repressive regimes from Saudi Arabia to Russia and builds its reputation as a major exporter of surveillance tools, border walls, and military machinery, it will become increasingly difficult for American Jews to happily hum along. Alterman ignores the utter failure of decades of “peace talks” and UN Resolutions. He chooses not to see the major corporations, the pension funds, the governments, the universities, the performers that are boycotting Israel because of concern for the wide range of well-documented human rights abuses. He is blind to the major social movements like Black Lives Matter that are allying themselves with critics of Israeli policy because they recognize racism and police brutality when they see it.
Alterman complains that supporters of BDS do not recognize “Israel’s right to exist,” and quotes Omar Barghouti, one of the leaders of the BDS movement as saying “no Palestinian — rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian — will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” Language and clarity are critically important here. I would argue that states come into existence out of a confluence of many factors: aspirations, wars, migration, colonization, treaties, etc., etc., but Israel does not have any more of a “right to exist” than Ecuador or Malaysia. Settler colonialism and manifest destiny do not have credibility in the twenty-first century. There is no such right. That argument is a veiled accusation of anti-Semitism which is used to silence critics of the policies of the Israeli state.
It is also important to pay attention to Barghouti’s full statement in which he describes the rights of the indigenous Palestinian population, the system of racial discrimination that exists, and his opposition to any exclusionary state, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. Because I listen to and work with many Palestinians, I can say quite clearly that it is extremely unlikely that any native people would welcome the creation of a state in what was recently their homes that excludes their inalienable right to self -determination.
In fact, Barghouti’s call for a democratic secular state is something we would all support in every country in the world…. Except Israel. This is a problem.
I hear that Alterman is tired of the “regular earful about the importance of B.D.S” that he gets as a college professor, a columnist for the Nation, and from his college-age daughter. He sees these earfuls as “a purity test of sorts for progressives,” which I think gets us to the real problem. Progressives who support civil rights and women’s rights and LGBTQ rights want a carve out when it comes to Zionism, the national political movement that supports the creation of a state which was born out of the settler colonial movements of the European empires as well as the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. This national political movement is used to justify policies that create severe harms to Palestinians. I would argue that it is also deeply corruptive for Jews who carry out these repressive actions and who historically have flourished in multicultural and (gasp dare I say it) Islamic societies. The Israeli government is involved in a massive project of self-ghettoization and this is very dangerous.
Additionally, for decades, Palestinians have lived under internationally-recognized occupation and siege, have experienced repeated military incursions, high rates of injury, PTSD, and depression. They live with severe restrictions of movement of goods and people including health-care providers and clinic and hospital supplies, high rates of child incarceration and administrative detention (detention without charges or trial), food insecurity, and aggressive displacement and home demolitions as most recently and vividly seen in East Jerusalem.
They cannot be expected to live under these conditions without resisting their oppression. This would be true for any of us. Despite the level of violence that they experience on a daily basis, mostly from the Israeli Defense Forces and other Israeli security forces as well as Jewish settlers, Palestinians have been widely condemned for any violent resistance. It stands to reason that when over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations ask the international community to nonviolently boycott Israel in order to pressure the government to change policies that are clearly harmful to Palestinians, we, the international community should focus our attention on honoring that request.
So BDS is not: “Like vegetarian diets and carbon-neutral living… something that is vital to espouse, but much less important to explain, let alone carry out.” Professor Alterman, finding a resolution to these issues and injustices, respecting the needs of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians as equal human beings, is one of the more critical challenges facing our society. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions is a creative and time-tested strategy to create political and social change. Your daughter says this is important. Listen to her.