Monday, December 10, 2018

What Happens When BDS Stops "Singling Out" Israel?

One of the most common arguments against BDS is that it "singles out" Israel for special opprobrium, even in the face of far more risible human rights atrocities being conducted elsewhere. This isn't the only argument against BDS, of course, and it is not bullet-proof, but it certainly has a fair bit of purchase. I, for one, think it has considerable legs -- and I'm not particularly convinced by those who act as if they're utterly baffled by the concept that double-standards can be evidence of prejudice.

But what if BDS stops singling out Israel? What happens if the movement to boycott Israel (or -- perhaps more likely -- certain companies alleged to be implicated in human rights violations in Israel and Palestine) becomes just one element of a larger and more comprehensive human rights program, one that really does target other violators under similar rubrics and with similar measures?

It is often asserted that the BDS agenda is one of singling out and bringing about the downfall of Israel. If one looks at the statements and ambitions of BDS founders, and many of its core activists, that's a warranted assessment. At the same time, many anti-BDS activists have suggested that a goodly chunk of what we might call "casual" BDS supporters don't share these more extreme views. Consequently, one often hears that if these more casual supporters were educated on what BDS was "really" about, they wouldn't support it.

Maybe. But it strikes me as at least as likely that they'd react by (a) supporting only a narrower range of demanded remedies (short of "dismantling the state") and (b) widening the array of offending states and parties for whom they think boycotts, divestments, or sanctions are appropriate.

The fact is that "BDS-style" advocacy has become increasingly popular on the left over the past few years, on many matters that have nothing to do with Israel. Think of calls to divest from fossil fuels or private prisons, or boycott campaigns against companies who advertise on this or that racist Fox program. Such initiatives are utterly ordinary on the left these days, they are part of the normal toolkit of progressive activism which is rarely thought to be controversial. People who have participated in these campaigns will find it strange to hear that, when they apply these same sets of tactics to Israel, that they're suddenly "singling out" a solitary wrongdoer. To the extent they find "What about Morocco? What about Russia? What about Turkey? What about Myanmar?" compelling, their most likely response is to shrug and add Morocco, Russia, Turkey, and Myanmar to their list of countries which should also be subjected to these sorts of tactics.

To be clear: this would represent a shift in BDS' orientation. As radical social movements move more mainstream, they typically moderate in both rhetoric and tactics (much to the consternation of the founding activists). The hard core of BDS does want to assert that there is something fundamentally different about Israel that deserves a relatively unique form of opposition -- they don't want the campaign to be genericized or generalized, in part because the sort of BDS which can be universalized across a wide range of human rights violators is almost certainly more confined that the total ostracization that BDS often demands on Israel (a settlement boycott is feasibly universalizable, an academic boycott much less so). They will fulminate bitterly against the "taming" or "domestication" of BDS; lament how it has been "co-opted" by moderates or sell-outs.

But I tend to think that this is a battle they'll lose (indeed, already the more radical elements of this campaign have already regrouped around "anti-normalization", rather than BDS, as an organizing mantra for more extreme measures of anti-Zionist exclusions). Sooner rather than later we'll see "BDS" actions which are not about Israel at all. If Israel is included in these "BDS" campaigns, it will be only because it falls under a more generic rubric of misconduct -- one country among many.

We're already seeing some evidence of this. To give a few examples:
Now to be sure: for now, these sorts of more "universal" BDS practices are sporadic, haphazard, and less well organized than the Israel-focused campaign. Nonetheless, I think this sort of activism is the way the wind is blowing. Instead of resolutions that specifically single out Israel, we'll see resolutions drafted with general language that is designed to include certain Israeli violations alongside similar practices by other nations. Instead of a campaign to ostracize Israel as the worst-of-the-worst, we'll see Israel portrayed as one of many other human rights violators, treated no worse and no better, with certain BDS actions as part of a range of tactics -- carrots and sticks -- designed to entice it towards improvements.

The bad news, for BDS opponents, is that this makes it harder to cast BDS as the product of single-minded anti-Israel fanaticism. The good news is that -- precisely because its rank-and-file aren't single-minded anti-Israel fanatics, they're more likely to channel BDS energies away from its most uncompromising and extremist ambitions and tactics: less academic boycott, more settlement boycott; less "Jews are European colonizers", more "end the occupation".

This will not be a smooth transition, and it won't be without a fight. The fact that organizations like Human Rights Watch still do often announce initiatives calling for a boycott of Israeli settlements, rather than "settlements", generally, seem like obvious own-goals if the group is trying to portray itself as adopting a universal human rights mission -- the likely explanation, then, is that the particularist Israel-focus continues to be a powerful mobilizing, organizing, and fund-raising tool. Likewise, there will no doubt be some who try to smuggle in a distinctive Israel-focus under the guise of "universal" language, gerrymandering the terms of debate so that Israel is the only country included.

Still, I suspect that five or ten years from now -- assuming no drastic changes in the Israel/Palestine situation -- that descriptive accuracy of the "singles out" complaint will have shrunk considerably. And then ... what? What happens to anti-BDS advocacy when this crucial talking point goes away? I don't think this automatically makes BDS a good strategy -- it depends on the particular targets and the particular context its operating in (again, settlement boycotts are far more justifiable than inside-the-green-line campaigns, much less cultural or academic boycotts).

But the reflexive pointing at the roots of BDS -- for whom "singles out" absolutely is a fair charge -- has blinded much of the Jewish establishment to where BDS is going. And I don't think our community is prepared for that future.

1 comment:

fenderman said...

"...they'd react by (a) supporting only a narrower range of demanded remedies (short of "dismantling the state") and (b) widening the array of offending states and parties for whom they think boycotts, divestments, or sanctions are appropriate.

The fact is that "BDS-style" advocacy has become increasingly popular on the left over the past few years, on many matters that have nothing to do with Israel."