Book review: "BDS provides a way to break our collective chains"
The recent decision by Morgan Stanley Chase International to remove Caterpillar from its socially responsible investment funds, specifically citing the corporation’s “controversial” role in the occupied West Bank and Gaza (and the ensuing decision to follow suit by the teachers’ pension investment firm, TIAA-CREF), testify to the growing strength of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS).
The Case for Sanctions Against Israel is a newly-published collection of essays on the expanding BDS movement against Israel’s policies of apartheid, repression, and ethnic cleansing. The book offers thorough background not only for the existing BDS activist community, but also for those just coming to the issue who may be unfamiliar with much of the history.
Among the 26 contributors, representing various backgrounds, are the Palestinian political activist Omar Barghouti, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the British filmmaker Ken Loach, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein and the veteran US civil rights activist Angela Davis.
The intelligence and absence of dogmatism reflected in these essays provide a basis for broad unity in the BDS movement, and a chronology of BDS achievements listed at the end of this volume, as well as the victories cited in several articles, also show that this movement is growing internationally. As with any critical examination, however, the contributors are also not reluctant to discuss setbacks along the way, as exemplified particularly in the essay by Stanford University historian Joel Beinin on the history of the BDS movement on US campuses.
Opposition to the Palestinian-led BDS campaign, organized and led by the Israeli government, centers on the claim that Israel bears no similarity to apartheid South Africa, the country that inspired the first global BDS movement. Several essays take on this objection, including those by South Africans Ronnie Kasrils and Ran Greenstein. Kasrils, an activist in his country’s anti-apartheid struggle, concludes, “we South Africans who fought apartheid have been unanimous in finding Israel’s methods of repression and collective punishment far, far worse than anything we saw during our long and difficult liberation struggle.”
Artful dodges by BDS opponents
Other objections to BDS might be more accurately described as artful dodges as they pick away at the movement without tackling its arguments head-on. Artful dodge number one says the campaign should focus solely on boycotting products produced in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank — implying that a comprehensive boycott of the Israeli state is “anti-Semitic.” Leading BDS organizer Omar Barghouti notes that the Palestinian BDS National Committee is not opposed to targeted boycotts.
But those who sincerely wish for the BDS campaign to bring sufficient pressure on the Israeli government for the campaign to succeed should note the essay in this collection by the Israelis Dalit Baum and Merav Amir, the coordinators of Who Profits?, a project of the Coalition of Women For Peace that has mapped out how corporations enable Israel’s crimes against humanity. They argue that Israel’s economy is so intertwined with the occupation that it is impossible to separate settlement enterprises from Israel as a whole. “The Green Line border has all but disappeared from the corporate activity map,” they write. “Even if we consider only the Israeli settlements, and then again focus only on settlement construction, we discover that the major players in the Israeli economy are deeply complicit with the occupation.”
Artful dodge number two focuses on the academic and cultural component of BDS with the argument that it infringes on academic freedom and interferes with the cultural dialogue needed for peace and reconciliation between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Several essays take on this objection.
Barghouti notes that the campaign from its inception focused solely on Israeli institutions, not individuals. Palestinian-American academic Nada Elia furthermore challenges the very notion of a neutral academy, showing how Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the occupation while Israel denies Palestinians not just academic freedom but even the right to an education.
In addition, academics Mark LeVine and Lisa Taraki cite evidence that as part of its Brand Israel marketing campaign, the Israeli government requires writers and artists seeking state funds to sign service provider contracts. The contracts stipulate they must “promote the policies of the state of Israel,” which would imply that their academic and cultural “freedoms,” far from being free, are actually bought and paid for.
More recently, a full-frontal assault on BDS from the liberal Zionist perspective accuses it of being a stealthy attempt to push a one-state solution. The BDS demands for the right of refugees to return and full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, according to this argument, mean an end to Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinian-American human rights lawyer Noura Erakat addresses this issue and explains why a rights-based approach, rather than a solution-based approach, was necessary to unite Palestinians in the diaspora, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Israel itself. Israeli journalist and campaigner Michael Warschawski also weighs in with a critique of Zionism as a settler-colonial enterprise. “Peace — or, better yet, justice — cannot be achieved,” Warschawski writes, “without a total decolonization (one can say de-Zionization) of the Israeli state; it is a precondition for the fulfillment of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians — refugees, those living under military occupation, and the second-class citizens of Israel.” Yet neither argument insists on a one-state solution, and the BDS National Committee makes it clear that it takes no stand on this issue.
Breaking our chains
This book is about much more than answering the critics of BDS, however. Hind Awwad, a coordinator with the BDS National Committee, makes a powerful argument for why BDS not only unites Palestinians but also unites the Palestinian struggle with other popular struggles, including those in the US that seek reforms in education, healthcare, and social justice. “The BDS movement,” she writes, “has provided a way for us to break our collective chains.”
Many other issues not examined in this book need to be probed, including the special responsibility of US activists in challenging the chief enabler of the Israeli occupation — their own government. More analysis is also needed of how the BDS campaign focused on South Africa differs from the one now focused on Israel. How significant were the end of the Cold War and the ongoing African-American struggle for civil rights in bringing about an end to the US government’s “constructive engagement” policy toward apartheid South Africa? To what extent are strategic geopolitical interests, not to mention the role of the Israel lobby, involved in making the US government resistant to the moral force of BDS?
Despite these omissions, this book makes clear that there is much reason for optimism. Kasrils notes that the Israeli cultural boycott, in six short years, is much further along on its timeline than the comparable South African cultural boycott. Awwad quotes Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received multiple standing ovations from the US Congress: “Listen, Bibi, I congratulate you on your hug from Congress, but it will not take us off the path to confrontation. Our situation in Europe is very bad. As a former industry and trade minister, I tell you: The markets are closing. We will suffer a devastating economic blow.”
Let’s hope the BDS movement is beginning to exact precisely this type of pressure. As Naomi Klein puts it in her essay, “it is time. Long past time.”
Rod Such is a freelance writer and former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is a member of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights.